The Republicans' mistreatment of Sen. Robert Byrd in their fight against health care reform.

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March 12 2010 6:03 PM

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The Republicans' mistreatment of Sen. Robert Byrd in their fight against health care reform.

Sen. Byrd has responded to Senate Republicans' claims—see update below.

In the film Annie Hall, Woody Allen finds himself stuck in line next to a man pontificating about the scholar Marshall McLuhan. Unable to stand it, Allen interrupts and tells the man he's wrong. The pedant replies that he's a professor who teaches on the topic. Allen has the perfect retort. He steps out of the theater line and pulls from the wings McLuhan, who tells the man he's thoroughly incorrect and wonders aloud how he ever got a teaching position. Allen turns to the camera lamenting that life is never like this.

In the debate over health care reform, West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd plays the role of Marshall McLuhan. Republicans have been appropriating him at every turn. They cite the Senate's longest-serving member to support their argument that President Obama and Senate Democrats are breaking the rules to pass health care legislation.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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Byrd is a good one to quote. He is the Senate's unofficial historian and protector of its prerogatives and procedures. He also wrote the rules that are at issue. So this week 41 Republicans wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that featured a quote from Byrd calling the use of reconciliation an "outrage." A day later, John McCain distributed a video of Byrd railing against using reconciliation to pass health care legislation.

They are willfully misreading Byrd. (See update below.) In the speech Republicans cite, Byrd was talking about an entirely different situation: He was referring to the idea of passing Bill Clinton's entire health care bill through the reconciliation process, which is meant only for legislation having to do with revenue. His argument was that the scope of the bill (very large) and the time for debate (very limited) made use of reconciliation improper. But neither factor is at play this time. One, the health care bill has been debated (almost literally) to death in the Senate. Indeed, it has passed, with 60 votes. Second, the bill that will go through the reconciliation process is a far smaller bill than the one Byrd was talking about a year ago on the floor of the Senate and in the Washington Post.

Republicans don't need to guess at what the senator believes. A week before the Republicans launched this latest round of Byrd-quoting, he wrote a letter to the Charleston Daily Mail. In it, he essentially endorsed reconciliation as Democrats plan to use it.

I believed then, as now, that the Senate should debate the health reform bill under regular rules, which it did. The result of that debate was the passing of a comprehensive health care reform bill in the Senate by a 60 vote supermajority. … The entire Senate or House passed health care bill could not and would not pass muster under the current reconciliation rules that were established under my watch. Yet a bill structured to reduce deficits by, for example, finding savings in Medicare or lowering health care costs may be consistent with the Budget Act, and appropriately considered under reconciliation.

Of course, Republicans could now say Byrd's new position is inconsistent or, worse, hypocritical. But as they have appropriated his arguments for their purposes, Republicans have spent the last few weeks heralding Byrd as the conscience of the Senate.

In his letter—curiously, no longer on the paper's site, though Google has cached it—Byrd chides the Charleston paper for pretending to know more about the Senate rules than he does. "It has been said that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing," he writes. The letter was a response to an editorial that railed against the current health care plan as an excessive overreach. "With all due respect," writes Byrd, "the Daily Mail's hyperbole about 'imposing government control,' acts of 'disrespect to the American people' and 'corruption' of Senate procedures resembles more the barkings from the nether regions of Glennbeckistan than the 'sober and second thought' of one of West Virginia's oldest and most respected daily newspapers."

As a defender of other old and respected institutions, Byrd's Republican colleagues might hope he doesn't direct similar words at them.

Update, March 17, 2010: Sen. Robert Byrd on Wednesday added more to his explanation of his current view on the use of reconciliation. In a letter to the West Virginia newspaper the Journal, he once again argues that the process can be used as Senate Democrats intend to use it: "Arm-chair parliamentarians, nattering newspaper writers, cable and broadcast babblers crying 'foul' over the prospect of "reconciliation" being employed to pass a health care reform bill all seem to be ignoring the fact that the horse has already left the barn—the health care reform bill they keep referring to passed in the Senate by a 60-vote "supermajority" margin back on Dec. 24 using the usual Senate procedures.

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