(CNSNews.com) – Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said that Vice President Joe Biden would “go down in history as a real dolt” if he used his power as president of the Senate to overrule the Senate parliamentarian on the legitimacy of procedural tactics that could allow the Democrats to enact their health-care reform bill without getting the normally required 60 votes in the Senate.
Because the Democrat caucus in the Senate no longer has 60 members with which to end debate on a bill (and prevent a Republican filibuster), it is being reported that the Democrats may attempt to pass changes to their original health care bill with just 51 votes through a process called reconciliation.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on Tuesday that if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) cannot get the 60 votes needed to end debate on the health care bill, they will “go to the simple majority,” 51 votes in the Senate, to pass the legislation.
The Democrats hold 57 seats in the Senate, and the two Independents, Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, caucus with the Democrats, giving them a 59-seat majority: Both Independents voted with the Democrats to pass the Senate health care bill in December 2009. The Republicans hold 41 seats in the Senate.
In order to pass changes through reconciliation, however, each provision in the bill must be related to the federal budget. Changes to the abortion language, for example, which may be needed to secure enough votes in the House of Representatives, may not be ruled pertinent to the process.
In that case, Republicans could raise objections that would be judged by the Senate parliamentarian, Alan Frumin, a non-partisan expert on Senate rules and procedures. The parliamentarian plays an advisory role to the presiding officer of the Senate, who is the person presiding over the Senate at any given time or could be the president of the Senate, Joe Biden.
The president of the Senate can overrule the parliamentarian, according to Robert Dove, who served as the Senate parliamentarian from 1981 to 1987.
With that in mind, CNSNews.com asked Senator Hatch: “What about the notion that if (Democrats) try to pursue reconciliation on health care that Vice President Biden might be able to break whatever parliamentary procedure you—”
Hatch said, “He’d have to be very careful there. He’d go down in history as a real dolt if he started to play that game. That’s why you have parliamentarians. And, you know, the worry is: Will the parliamentarian be fair? I don’t have any worry about that. I believe that Alan Frumin or the other parliamentarians will be fair. But there’ll be a lot of pressure on them.”
“But if they value their reputation at all, they’ll do what’s right,” said Hatch, “and I would think that Senator—Vice President Biden would be very, very loathe to ever overrule the parliamentarian.”
The former parliamentarian Robert Dove first mentioned the idea that Biden could influence the reconciliation process during an interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie on Monday.
Guthrie asked, “Alan Frumin, the parliamentarian, will really be the man of the hour if Democrats proceed this way (with reconciliation) because isn’t it the parliamentarian’s decision whether or not something qualifies as a budget item or not? He’s sort of judge and jury, and executioner perhaps, for the policy.”
Dove corrected Guthrie, saying, “Actually, it is the decision of the vice president whether or not to play a role here … and I have seen vice presidents play that role in other very important situations.
“The vice president can overrule the parliamentarian?” Guthrie asked.
“Oh, absolutely,” Dove said. “The parliamentarian only can advise. It is the vice president who rules. But I will say that not since Hubert Humphrey have I seen a vice president try to play that kind of a role in the Senate.”
Todd, however, said that Biden is quite familiar with Senate procedure, having served multiple terms as Delaware’s senator. “But not since Hubert Humphrey have we had a vice president this in, this familiar with Senate rules either in Joe Biden,” said Todd.
“That’s why I brought this up, yes,” Dove said.
The House and Senate have both passed versions of health care reform, but have had difficulty reconciling the two because of differences over taxpayer-funding for abortion and an excise tax on so-called “Cadillac” health care plans.
In order to get the House to adopt the Senate’s version of the bill, and send it to the president’s desk for signing into law, changes to the Senate version could be made through reconciliation, or what Democrats are now branding a “simple majority” vote.
Republicans, however, say reconciliation was created only to avoid budget crises and should not be applied to sweeping policy changes like health care.