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Health Bill Can Pass Senate With 51 Votes, Van Hollen Says

Jonathan D. Salant
Bloomberg

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

Even if Democrats lose the Jan. 19 special election to pick a new Massachusetts senator, Congress may still pass a health-care overhaul by using a process called reconciliation, a top House Democrat said.

That procedure requires 51 votes rather than the 60 needed to prevent Republicans from blocking votes on President Barack Obama’s top legislative priorities. That supermajority is at risk as the Massachusetts race has tightened.

“Even before Massachusetts and that race was on the radar screen, we prepared for the process of using reconciliation,” said Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“Getting health-care reform passed is important,” Van Hollen said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend. “Reconciliation is an option.”

Using reconciliation would likely force Democrats to scale back their health-care plans. The procedure is designed to make deficit-cutting easier by reducing the number of votes needed to pass unpopular tax increases and spending cuts. Lawmakers can’t include policy changes that the parliamentarian deems have only an “incidental” connection to budget-cutting, and senators would need 60 votes to override those rulings.

Van Hollen also said he expects Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakleyto win in Massachusetts.

‘Pure Hallucination’

Van Hollen said Republican predictions that the political climate had changed so much that they can capture the 40 seats needed to regain control of the House was “pure hallucination.”

“Why would you hand the keys to the car back to the same guys whose policies drove the economy into the ditch and then walked away from the scene of the accident?” Van Hollen said. “For the Republicans to say vote for us and bring back the guys who got us into this mess in the first place, I don’t think it’s a winner.”

He said Democrats expect to see their majority shrink this year because the party that occupies the White House traditionally loses congressional seats in the first midterm election.

At the end of a week dominated by images of death and destruction after the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti, Van Hollen said lawmakers likely will approve whatever relief money the president requests. Obama has already asked for $100 million.

“We want to help people who need relief immediately, and so to that extent I support it,” Van Hollen said.

Haitians in U.S.

Separately, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced yesterday that Haitian nationals now in the U.S. will be allowed to stay for an additional 18 months because of the quake devastation.

On other domestic issues, Van Hollen said Congress won’t raise the gasoline tax this year to fund a new long-term construction program for roads and mass transit. The current six-year, $286.5 billion transportation legislation is expiring.

Jobs legislation passed by the House includes $50 billion for construction projects, Van Hollen said. Longer-term legislation with a gas-tax increase will require “some kind of bipartisan consensus before you more forward,” he said.

On the decision to call Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to testify before the House Financial Services Committee, Van Hollen said that while he didn’t believe Geithner was in political danger, it was appropriate for him to come before Congress.

New York Fed

Lawmakers want to know why the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which Geithner formerly led, agreed to payments of 100 cents on the dollar to companies that held American International Group Inc. credit-default swaps tied to subprime mortgages.

Van Hollen said the New York Fed’s decision was wrong and the U.S. needed to “understand how that decision was made, because that kind of decision should not be made in the future.”

As Democratic congressional leaders worked with the White House to meld House and Senate versions of the health-care overhaul legislation, Van Hollen said there was no deadline for completing the measure.

“Our more important goal is to make sure we get it right,” he said.

While polls show opposition to the legislation — a Quinnipiac University survey found 58 percent of Americans opposing the way Obama was handling the issue — Van Hollen said the individual components were popular and most people will support the measure once it clears Congress.

“It’s been subject to a lot of demagoguery, a lot of misinformation,” Van Hollen said. Once the measure is finished, “people will see the benefits.”

View the original article at Bloomberg

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