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Cluck, Cluck... That's the Sound of Congress

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Using reconciliation to pass the health care bill promises to transform Congress into a bunch of angry chickens, picking through pages of the bill like feed in a trough. The big question that remains is: can reconciliation even happen?

Despite Obama’s bluster, Senate sources are dubious.

In order for reconciliation to occur in the Senate, the House must first pass the Senate bill exactly the way it was passed on Christmas Eve – with the abortion language opposed by Rep. Bark Stupak, with the "Cornhusker Kickback" and "Louisiana Purchase," and with unpopular taxation proposals. 217 House Members need to vote for all of these things in order for reconciliation to proceed in the Senate.

If those 217 votes exist, it would be the most politically charged and electorally-fatal roll call in recent memory. It’s an election year. It is "The Year of Scott Brown." But rumor has it that, urged by the President, the votes are in line.

The votes are supposedly there because House members have been promised that the Senate reconciliation process will address the concerns that the House cannot address in this initial vote. Congressmen might even be able to revise it some more when it comes back from the Senate.

What exactly will emerge from the Senate reconciliation process is anyone’s guess. Three major questions loom: what the Senate parliamentarian will allow under reconciliation, whether Joe Biden will take unprecedented steps and overrule him, and what tactics the Republicans can pull as far as blocking up the Senate with inane amendments to stall the entire process.

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There are no answers to any of those questions.

Alan Fruman, the parliamentarian, is not allowed to give interviews. Biden has also said nothing. And House Republicans are vowing they’ll gum up the process as much as possible, but since nothing like this has ever been done before, it’s unclear exactly what their (warranted) antics would accomplish.

About the only source to glean useful information from is Frumin’s predecessor, Robert Dove, who speaks in veiled messages to the press.

Here’s what Dove has said to the Wall Street Journal about Frumin and reconciliation:

"The whole process in my experience as parliamentarian is a rather wrenching one… It's just long and grueling.…I don't envy [Frumin].”

Dove has also said that while anything is possible, he’s never seen reconciliation used in the manner it might be used now. Reconciliation can only be used with budgetary matters, and while it might seem that every issue can be boiled down to a budgetary matter, that’s not really the case. Back in 2001, Dove threw out hundreds of amendments that he determined to have “alternative” goals, like abortion funding. That issue, he said, had too many policy ramifications to be ruled a fiscal issue.

No one can ascertain Frumin’s opinion on what alternative goals exist for what issues in the health care bill. Frumin works for the Democrats, but was originally appointed by Republicans. Most accounts paint him as judicious and to-the-letter in terms of abiding by Senate rule, but if he had an agenda, no one would know. This is a heck of an issue over which to exert control.

Furthermore, Joe Biden has the authority to overrule Frumin, though that hasn’t really been done before. Vice Presidential intervention hasn’t been done on an issue of this magnitude since 1968, and the use of reconciliation for anything but budgetary matters was outlawed in 1974.

The only thing that’s clear is that Obamacare will clear new ground in policy, procedure, and politics.

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