In the aftermath of the election liberals have strained Twitter’s servers, debating how Senate Democrats—the last line of defense against Donald Trump’s agenda—should treat his proposals. Armies of self-styled Democratic strategists have condemned collaboration and demanded total resistance. But embedded in these diatribes is the assumption that Senate Republicans even want to get anything done.
Data point number one: The 115th Congress will initially leave the legislative filibuster, long expected to be dead, fully intact (though the one for Supreme Court justices is likely gone). Old GOP hands like Lindsey Graham and Orrin Hatch have vowed to maintain the filibuster, and Jeff Flake and Jim Inhofe are reportedly on board as well. That’s more than enough to deny the necessary votes to end the 60-vote threshold.
Smart students of legislative procedure will interject that Republicans can use budget reconciliation, a process requiring a mere majority vote. Any measure in a reconciliation bill must have a budgetary effect, but that’s enough to block grant Medicaid and food stamps or privatize Medicare or repeal much of the Affordable Care Act or, as George W. Bush did, lavish tax cuts on the wealthy.
But that notion of a Republican-led quick strike runs up against data point number two: Lamar Alexander, chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, one of two with jurisdiction on Obamacare, cautioned it “will take several years” to repeal and replace the law. “We’ll need a consensus to complete it,” Alexander said, explicitly setting the bar at 60 votes. Alexander even downplayed reconciliation as a tactic, saying that it “only gives instructions to committees to go to work to solve the problem. A reconciliation package by itself doesn’t repeal anything.” (This is true, but the subsequent reconciliation bill can repeal items if they change outlays or revenues.) Hatch, chair of the other committee of jurisdiction (the Senate Finance Committee), also called for a bipartisan approach on any health care tweaks, and said that he would even need Democratic support for tax reform, which George W. Bush passed through reconciliation.