Washington » Sen. Orrin Hatch threatened an all-out political "war" and promised a new high in partisan tensions if Democrats employ a rarely used Senate rule to win approval of their health reform bill.
His provocative statements came a day after President Barack Obama made a plea for bipartisanship and cooperation in his State of the Union address.
It was a plea that Hatch, a Utah Republican who sits on both of the Senate's health committees, said he simply didn't believe.
"They haven't acted in good faith on this, nor do I expect that they will," he said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune . "I expect them to go to reconciliation."
Reconciliation is a procedure that would allow Democrats to bypass a potential filibuster and pass a bill with a simple majority vote. The rule was created to allow Congress to pass budgets in extreme circumstances and is rarely ever used. Under normal rules it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, but Democrats now control 59 seats after the unexpected Republican victory in the special election in left-leaning Massachusetts last week.
Hatch said Thursday that using reconciliation would be "one of the worst grabs for power in the history of the country" that would permanently impact relations between the two parties.
"It is going to be outright war and it should be, because it would be such an abuse of the reconciliation rules," Hatch said. "If they abuse those rules it is going to lead to even more heated animosities between not just the two parties, but even between individual senators."
Democratic leaders have said they are still considering their options, which range from breaking the bill into pieces, scaling it back or dropping it altogether. But one of the most straightforward possibilities is having the House pass the Senate health bill and then run a second piece of legislation with compromise fixes through the reconciliation process. It is not clear whether House Democrats would go along with this plan, but Hatch said it shows that Democrats "are not even putting on the veneer of bipartisanship."
Democrats have countered such arguments by saying Republicans haven't seriously sought a bipartisan bill on health care or other major issues, instead calculating that blocking Democratic legislation will help them win more seats in November's election.
"Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership," Obama said in his State of the Union address Wednesday night.
Obama tried to use the speech to revive the stalled health reform package. He defended the Democrats' bill, while at the same time accepting "my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people." Opinion polls show the public does not favor the bill.
The president urged Congress to continue working on the issue and directed one comment specifically to the Republicans.
"If anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know," Obama said. "Here's what I ask Congress, though: Don't walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people."
The Democrats' comprehensive bill would expand Medicaid and provide a sliding scale of subsidies for low- to middle-class Americans. It would stop unpopular insurance industry practices and seek to slow the rise of health care costs. The proposal would be paid for through some cuts in future Medicare spending and a host of tax increases on industries and high-cost insurance plans.
Hatch said Congress could reach an agreement on a compromise bill, though it would have to be much smaller in scope than the Democrats had originally envisioned. And the Democrats would have to drop all tax increases, he said.