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).
Nuclear option: The Republicans' threat to change the Senate filibuster rule itself. During the 2005 battle over President Bush's extremely conservative judicial nominees, the Republicans didn't have the 60 votes to overcome a likely Democratic filibuster, so majority leader Bill Frist threatened to do something that had never been done. Through a complicated series of procedural steps designed to bypass the normal two-thirds, or 67, vote requirement to change a Senate rule, the Republicans would use a simple majority vote to ban Senators from filibustering judicial nominees--not just the nominees under consideration, but any in the future. (Here's how it would have gone down in 2005 had not the Gang of 14 forced a compromise.)
"Nuclear option" was an apt term at the time, says a Senate rules expert who wants to remain anonymous, because "it would have been a major change in Senate rules that would have forever changed the right of senators to filibuster judicial nominees. It hadn't been done before because it would have thrown the Senate into chaos."
Soon, however, Republicans realized that the phrase made them look like the bad guys. Former majority leader Trent Lott, who originally coined the phrase, tried to rename it the "Constitutional option" (giving rise to jokier names like the "ExLax option"), and righties blamed the Democrats for creating the name in the first place. As Media Matters wrote at the time: "Many in the media have complied with the Senate Republicans' shift in terminology and repeated their attribution of the term 'nuclear option' to the Democrats." Sound familar?
Reconciliation, on the very other hand, does not nuke any Senate rules--it is a Senate rule. Established in the 1974 Congressional Budget Act and used by both parties to circumvent filibusters in order to vote through budgetary (and only budgetary, per the Byrd rule of 1985) legislation on a simple majority vote. "There's nothing nuclear about reconciliation," the Senate rules expert says. "It's been used most years since 1980, by both parties, Republicans more than Democrats, and for social policy like Medicare, Medicaid, welfare reform, and for both Bush tax cuts. They're trying to act like something scandalous is being done, and that's nonsense."
And as Democrats are having trouble making clear, reconciliation would not, could not, be used to pass the entire health care bill. It would apply only to the more House-friendly "fixes" to the comprehensive Senate healthcare reform bill--which, as the right wants us to forget, already passed, by 60 votes. (For a great explanation--with pictures!--of the reconciliation-equals-nuclear-option lie, see Rachel Maddow here.)
Majority, simple majority, supermajority, and megasuperamazing majority: While we're at it, let's define something so basic you'd think it would need no explanation. But in the GOP's down-is-up vocabulary, even "majority" is made to seem like a small-time loser. It means, of course, 51 votes or more; same for "simple majority." The "supermajority" required to end a filibuster is 60 votes. A few months ago, a couple Republican senators insisted that a health care bill shouldn't pass unless it reached a megasupermajority of 67 or more votes. Defining majority up obscures the fact that, without a filibuster threat, a simple majority vote is the normal way bills pass the Senate, as it always does in the House. Of course, GOP threats of filibuster have been de rigueur since Obama's been in office. And so you have insta-revisionists like Fox's Baier telling viewers that reconciliation "would only need 51 votes instead of the 60 normally required."
Up-or-down vote: But how can one reach this mysterious, increasingly exotic thing called a "majority vote"? By (drum roll) an up-or-down vote. It means whoever gets at least 51 votes wins. But more than that, "up-or-down vote" is a gut-simple way to cut through the Republican fog machine. Dems, let's hear it!