Media: When Dems use budget process to pass bills, it's the "nuclear option"

››› ››› LILY YAN

In recent days, media figures repeatedly referred to the Senate Democrats' possible use of reconciliation to pass health care reform with a simple majority as the "nuclear option," with Fox News going so far as to run graphics defining "nuclear option" as "[f]orcing government-run insurance through the Senate with just 51 votes." In fact, the term "nuclear option" was coined by then-Republican Sen. Trent Lott in 2005 to refer to a possible Republican attempt to change Senate filibuster rules, while the budget process, known as reconciliation, is already part of Senate procedure, and Republicans have used it repeatedly in the past.

Fox defines "nuclear option" as "[f]orcing government-run insurance through the Senate with just 51 votes"

On August 20 on Fox News' America's Newsroom, co-host Bill Hemmer stated: "Democrats may go it alone on their effort to change America's health care; Democratic congressional leaders now considering a nuclear option to pass the most controversial parts of the reform package."

Fox then displayed the following graphic:

Hemmer continued: "That nuclear option, by the way, means the Democratically controlled Senate can force through government-run insurance with only 51 votes -- a simple majority -- forcing approval of a plan rejected by Republicans, a good number of Democrats, and a growing number of Americans based on polling." Moments later, co-host Megyn Kelly added: "That nuclear option is the first of two very big developments in health care reform this morning." [Fox News' America's Newsroom; 8/20/09]

"Nuclear option" coined to describe the process to change Senate filibuster rules

Lott described proposal to change filibuster rules as nuclear option. The term "nuclear option" was coined by Lott, one of the leading advocates of a proposal to change the Senate rule that requires a three-fifths supermajority to invoke cloture and end a filibuster. After Republican strategists deemed the term a political liability, Republican senators began to attribute it to Democrats. As Media Matters for America noted, at the time, many in the news media followed suit, repeating the Republicans' false attribution of the term to Democrats.

Reconciliation is already part of Senate procedure, and Republicans have used it repeatedly

Reconciliation process is part of congressional budget process. The budget reconciliation process is defined by the U.S. House Committee on Rules as "part of the congressional budget process ... utilized when Congress issues directives to legislate policy changes in mandatory spending (entitlements) or revenue programs (tax laws) to achieve the goals in spending and revenue contemplated by the budget resolution."

Republicans repeatedly used reconciliation to pass former President Bush's agenda. Republicans used the budget reconciliation process to pass Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts as well as the 2005 "Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act." The Senate also used the procedure to pass a bill containing a provision that would permit oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (The final version of that bill signed by Bush did not contain the provision on drilling.)

Back in May, Wallace prompted Sen. McConnell to declare reconciliation "nuclear option"

Sen. McConnell: Dems "have that option. ... They could pass [health care reform] with a simple majority." Back in May, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace prompted Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to declare the Democrats' potential use of "a budget plan that allows" health care reform "to be passed by a simple majority" a "nuclear option." Wallace asked: "Is that a nuclear option, if they do that?" McConnell responded, in part: "[T]hey have that option. That's the good news for them. They could pass it with a simple majority."

From the May 17 edition of Fox News Sunday:

WALLACE: Now, there has been talk -- and again, this is not something they're necessarily going to do -- but they have passed a provision that would allow the health care plan to be passed under what's called reconciliation.

I don't want to get too far into the weeds, but very briefly, that's a budget plan that allows it to be passed by a simple majority, not by the supermajority of 60 votes.

Is that a nuclear option, if they do that?

McCONNELL: Well, I mean, they have that option. That's the good news for them. They could pass it with a simple majority, as you suggest.

Since then, Fox News personalities have repeatedly declared process is "nuclear option"

Fox News' Sammon: "Democrats are headed for not the public option, but the nuclear option." Fox News vice president of news and Washington managing editor Bill Sammon has repeatedly falsely compared the potential use of reconciliation to pass a health care bill with the "nuclear option." On June 23, while discussing Democratic efforts to advance health care reform, Sammon asserted, "I think they have built in that eventuality that they have to use the nuclear option." He continued: "By the way, when Democrats do it, we're supposed to call it reconciliation. When Republicans do it, we call it the nuclear option." And on the August 18 edition of Fox Business' Cavuto, Sammon stated: "Democrats are headed for not the public option, but the nuclear option -- which is to say they'll change the rules to the Senate so that you don't need 60 votes, you'll only need 50 votes. And then, of course, [Vice President Joe] Biden would be the tiebreaker."

Hannity, Morris also redefine reconciliation as nuclear option. On the August 10 edition of Fox News' Hannity, Fox News contributor Dick Morris predicted that Democrats will try to pass a health care bill "with 50 votes on reconciliation, the so-called nuclear option." The next day, host Sean Hannity similarly stated that Democrats are "even talking about a nuclear option if they can't get their 60-vote filibuster number in the Senate -- or filibuster-proof number."

Stoddard, Baier agree that reconciliation "used to be called the nuclear option." From the August 19 edition of Special Report with Bret Baier:

A.B. STODDARD (The Hill associate editor): I mean, you can't end up with a bill that changes insurance policy, OK? So that's a really complicated road, but also it's just -- it's a political disaster for them to leave out the other party and try to ram something through the Senate using a procedure by the way that was designed to just keep the deficit under control.

BAIER: And you're talking about reconciliation --

STODDARD: The reconciliation procedure.

BAIER: -- where the vote would be -- just quickly -- they would only need 51 votes instead of the 60 --

STODDARD: Instead of the 60.

BAIER: -- normally required. Reconciliation is what it's called now. It used to be called the nuclear option, didn't it?

STODDARD: Yes. Yes. I mean, it was invented long ago by Senator Byrd, and it was to protect the deficit. And he is against -- he has said adamantly he's against his party using this to ram a spending bill and a policy bill through the Senate.

It is -- it would be nuclear if they left the other party out and tried to pull this through with 51 Democrats.

Hannity repeatedly refers to "reconciliation process" as "nuclear option." On August 19, Hannity stated, "Harry Reid and his staff are saying now that this nuclear option that we keep hearing about -- which is the reconciliation process -- he's using the term 'any means legislatively necessary,' that they will use." Later in his show, Hannity again asserted: "So Harry Reid is threatening the nuclear option. If they go -- if they don't listen to the American people, who are speaking out at these town halls, and they bypass the normal process and they try and do this through reconciliation, which I would argue they have great difficulties if they want to try that, would that be a slap in the face to the American people?"

Fox's Emanuel: Dems "considering the nuclear option -- 51 votes to get the most controversial aspects of health care reform through." On August 20, White House correspondent Mike Emanuel stated: "[I]f you look at the headlines this morning, it says that, basically, the Democrats are considering the nuclear option -- 51 votes to get the most controversial aspects of health care reform through." Emanuel added, "So the question is: Are some Democrats somewhere basically threatening Republicans, saying, you can either get with us or we're gonna shove it down your throats? And so, definitely, you see some flexing of muscles from some Democrats out there."

Fox Nation: "Dems Consider Nuclear Option to Pass Health Care." On August 20, The Fox Nation featured this image of a mushroom cloud with the headline, "Dems Consider Nuclear Option to Pass Health Care":

[The Fox Nation, accessed 8/20/09]

CNN's Chetry, Cooper, MSNBC's Matthews joined Fox in comparing reconciliation to "nuclear option"

Cooper on "White House battle for health care reform": "Call it the nuclear option." As Media Matters noted, on August 18, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper stated: "Breaking news that could change everything in the White House battle for health care reform. Call it the nuclear option." He continued: "After negotiating with the Republicans, conservative Democrats and, seemingly, themselves, over parts of a plan, CNN has learned that the administration could be getting closer to a very big change -- namely, crafting a health care bill and trying to ram it through the Senate, even if it passes by only a single vote."

Chetry: "[T]he nuclear option is something that we're talking about yet again." Similarly, the following day, American Morning co-host Kiran Chetry stated: "We've heard about the nuclear option before, right? I mean, that was when there was talk about maybe bypassing Democratic concerns when it came to judicial nominees." She added: "Well, now, the nuclear option is something that we're talking about yet again. This time it has to do with Democrats considering going it alone when it comes to health care."

Chris Matthews: Using reconciliation is not "accept[ing] the Senate rules." On August 19 on MSNBC's Hardball, Chris Matthews had the following exchange with's Joan Walsh:

MATTHEWS: Let's finish the show tonight with a real salute to you, Joan. We don't always agree, as you point out, but I think you had a fascinating notion the other day. Don't call it the nuclear option. Don't even try it. Accept the Senate rules and say, "Look, if the other side wants to filibuster, we'll give them all the time in the world to filibuster."

But, at some point, it's going to be clear to the American people that's what they're doing; they're filibustering. Call for a vote. Let them talk and talk, bring the bunk beds in. Stay for a month or two, stay 'till Christmas, 'til New Year's. Let them -- but make them filibuster like in the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Make them actually do it. Accept the rules as they are. Why not do it? I think it's a great idea.

WALSH: I agree. I'd like to see Harry Reid --

MATTHEWS: Well, it was your idea.

WALSH: Oh, it's a lot of people's idea.

CNN's Josh Levs debunks: "It's actually not" the nuclear option

Levs: "[W]e're not talking about that term here." On August 19, correspondent Josh Levs described how Democrats could "circumvent" Republican opposition to health care reform, saying they could "use that reconciliation, get a simple majority of 51 votes, [and] potentially pass the bill." Anchor Drew Griffin then asked: "[I]s that the nuclear option we've heard about ... in the past?" Levs replied, "It's actually not." Levs continued: "Right, we've heard the 'nuclear option' term used, and that was used in the context of trying to get through some judicial nominees against a filibuster. In a way, it's a similar concept, but we're not talking about that term here. That's not the term that we're -- that's being used. Instead, it's about this specific thing, a reconciliation, that got inside that 2010 budget."

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