By GRAHAM MOOMAW
WASHINGTON (Feb. 20, 2010) - Both of Maryland's senators have gotten behind a last-ditch effort to revive a public, government-run health insurance option by using a controversial legislative procedure known as reconciliation.
Under reconciliation rules, Democrats would be able to bring the public option up for consideration needing only 51 votes to pass, rather than the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster under normal Senate rules. If invoked, the procedure would enable Democrats to pass a bill without Republican support.
The lowered bar would also allow a bill to move forward even in the face of some Democratic defections.
Created by the 1974 Congressional Budget Act, the reconciliation procedure was intended to be used only as a way to make necessary changes to the budget, according to a write-up by Kaiser Health News. It has been used 19 times since the early 1980s, often with legislation that doesn't deal directly with the budget, but it remains a controversial option still on the table for health care reform.
Senate Republicans have warned Democrats against using the tactic, saying it would cause a backlash among the American people and would derail any hopes of bipartisanship.
On Thursday, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., signed on to a letter urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to bring the public option to a vote under reconciliation. The letter, which was written and circulated by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., was signed by 17 Democratic senators as of Thursday afternoon.
In the letter, Bennet said that a government-run insurance option will help reduce deficits and increase competition, and that the use of reconciliation is not all that uncommon.
"The Senate has an obligation to reform our unworkable health insurance market - both to reduce costs and to give consumers more choices," Bennet wrote. "A strong public option is the best way to deliver on both of these goals, and we urge its consideration under reconciliation rules."
Cardin, who has been traveling overseas on official business related to his duties as chairman of the Helsinki Commission, has not officially signed the letter, but a spokeswoman said Thursday that he supports both the public option and the idea of using reconciliation to pass a bill.
"Sen. Cardin has always been a strong supporter of the public option," said Sue Walitsky, his spokeswoman. "As a member of the Budget Committee, he has always considered reconciliation a viable option for health care reform."
Both Cardin and Mikulski signed a letter to Reid in October expressing support for the public option, but the provision wasn't included in the health care bill that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve.
The election of Republican Sen. Scott Brown in last month's special election in Massachusetts left Democrats one vote shy of 60, leaving the Democratic leadership with few easy options to move forward on health care reform.
Since Brown's victory threw a wrench into the works, progressives have argued that Democrats should use their majority muscle to push strong health care reform through rather than water the reforms down by making further appeals for Republican support.
The possibility of bipartisan health care reform will be tested next week, when President Obama is set to host a televised meeting with congressional leaders from both parties to discuss the issue.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.