A few weeks ago, Talking Points Memo started asking a question that now seems so obvious you wonder why you hadn’t heard it before: Instead of blabbing on about filibusters, cloture, reconciliation, and other "arcana," as Josh Marshall put it, why aren’t the Dems trying to pass health care reform with red-blooded American words like "up-or-down vote"? Or "majority vote"? After all, though the reconciliation procedure has been used 22 times, mostly by Republicans, since 1980 to pass major legislation, most Americans have no idea what it means (outside, perhaps, of a happy ending to divorce). But they do know up-or-down vote: Thumbs up, thumbs down, count ’em. Next.
Which is essentially what the White House has finally decided to say. Yesterday, President Obama called for an "up-or-down vote" on health care, without once mentioning "reconciliation." "The American people, all they want is an up or down vote," David Axelrod said earlier, adding a few other clear, slogany phrases like "let the majority rule and let’s move on."
Oh, the Democrats aren’t shouting "up-or-down vote" with as much bully-boy gusto as the Republicans incessantly did during the 2005-2006 battles over the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts and Sam Alito. Then, the constant cries from conservative politicians and media was that the two judges deserved a "fair up or down vote," the frequent fillip of "fair" tapping the put-upon resentment of the populist heart (and not seen much from Dems these days). But the daintier D’s are at least now deigning to use some punchy, Germanic, monosyllablic words. By comparison, and with the aid of aggressive Republican dissembling, the Latinate, multisyllabic "reconciliation," has been made to seem serpentinely sneaky, if not also overeducated elite.
But no matter how much Fox & GOP Friends repeat that Obama is trying to "ram," "jam," and/or "cram" the health care bill through by reconciliation, it’s hard to make the word sound downright evil. So, in a coordinated talking-point fulsilade, the right is trying, and often succeeding, to redefine reconciliation as something it’s not, a "nuclear option."
"What used to be called the nuclear option is now kind of a warm and fuzzy phrase called ‘reconciliation’" (Fox News anchor Gregg Jarrett). "Reconciliation is what it’s called now. It used to be called the nuclear option" (Fox anchor Bret Baier). "[Sen. Dick] Durbin said, the Senate could make changes to the bill by using the nuclear option, known formally as ‘reconciliation’" (FoxNews.com). Durbin, of course, never used those words.
The right didn’t just begin trying to ram/jam/cram the redefinition through. Fox was on the case back in May, when Chris Wallace prompted Senate minority Mitch McConnell to say reconciliation=nuclear option; by the Town Hall days of August, Sean Hannity, Dick Morris, and other Foxers were barking it in a redefining frenzy.
Maybe it’s time for a glossary, starting with the best-known of the barely-known terms:
Filibuster: A Senate rule that allows for continuous debate over a bill and is cut off only if 60 senators vote to end debate (or invoke "cloture"). To see why it’s so easy to bamboozle the public over Senate semantics, consider that a recent Pew poll found that a mere 26 percent of Americans know that 60 votes will end a filibuster, while 25 percent believe that only 51 votes are needed (7 percent say 67; 5 percent, 75; and 37 percent admit they don’t know).