A new take on obscure parliamentary procedure has offered Congressional Democrats an unexpected – and enticing – new opportunity to advance some of their most ambitious legislative goals despite their slim majority and fierce Republican opposition.
This week, the Senate parliamentarian determined that Democrats can use a fast-track process known as budget reconciliation more times than previously thought, potentially allowing them to pass multiple legislative packages without any Republican support ahead of the election. midterm next year – if they can keep theirs. members online.
Democrats insist they have yet to make a decision on whether – or how – to use the new expanded set of procedural keys, opening up additional opportunities to bypass Republicans and obstruction of the Senate, which requires 60 votes to be overcome.
Still, the decision marks a significant victory for Democrats and the new administration as they attempt to push a broad agenda through an evenly divided Senate chamber.
In an interview on MSNBC this week, Bernie Sanders, chairman of the powerful Senate Budget Committee, said the move significantly broadens the path towards passage of Joe Biden’s sweeping infrastructure program, which includes a broad work plan. audiences he announced last week as well as an upcoming proposal focused on reducing economic inequality. It also gives Democrats “a little more opportunity” to achieve a wide range of other progressive ambitions.
Presenting a hypothetical strategy, he said the next reconciliation package could include the first element of Biden’s infrastructure plan, while future attempts could expand health coverage, provide paid family leave and support a free public college. of schooling.
Now Sanders has said, “we don’t have to put it all into one bill.”
As Republicans pledge to obstruct much of Biden’s emerging infrastructure plan and a lack of support to remove the filibuster, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer asked the MP of the Senate, Elizabeth MacDonough, the non-partisan arbiter of chamber rules, though reconciliation can be used more than once per fiscal year.
They argued that the 47-year-old budget provision allowed Democrats to revise the budget plan they used to pass Biden’s $ 1.9 billion Covid relief bill with new instructions that would allow them pass independent legislation, such as the President’s infrastructure plan.
According to Schumer’s office, she agreed.
In a statement, Justin Goodman, a spokesperson for Schumer, called his opinion “an important step forward” while warning that “certain parameters” have yet to be worked out. “This key path is available to Democrats if necessary,” he concluded, stressing that no commitment had been made to use the new tool.
Democrats already had two more chances of reconciliation before this congress ended in January 2023, using budget plans for the next two fiscal years. But MacDonough’s decision allows them to use the tactic twice more this year, and possibly as many times next year.
Democrats’ pursuit of this legislative gamble reflects both their fragile majority and “the intensity of political polarization” in America, said Ross Baker, professor of American politics at Rutgers University and author of Is Bipartisanship Dead?
“It’s a very similar situation to calling the referee or linesman at a sporting event and asking them to throw the penalty or run the ball for a touchdown to break the tie,” he said. stated in an email. The parliamentarian of the Senate is called upon to solve “problems that elected officials cannot or do not want to solve”.
Reconciliation, established under the Congressional Budget Control and Impoundment Act 1974, was originally designed to promote deficit reduction by forcing lawmakers to “reconcile” federal spending laws and regulations. revenues with their budgetary targets.
But due to protection from filibuster, majorities have used reconciliation to build muscle through major laws, including revising wellness programs under Bill Clinton, changing the Affordable Care Act (ACA). under Barack Obama and adopt tax cuts under Donald Trump. Republicans also twice used reconciliation to repeal the ACA, but Obama vetoed the first attempt and the second attempt failed to get the Senate through.
While public opinion offers Democrats new legislative avenues, it hardly solves all of their challenges.
“It’s always great to have options, but nothing here guarantees success,” said Jim Manley, who served as an assistant to Harry Reid, the former Democratic majority leader in the Senate.
Reconciliation is a cumbersome and complex process, fraught with potential obstacles. It is subject to strict rules requiring that all provisions relate directly to the federal budget, which means that the party will not be able to pass all of its political objectives through this procedure. Democrats were reminded of those constraints earlier this year when a measure that would have raised the federal minimum wage to $ 15 an hour was withdrawn from the coronavirus relief bill after being ruled out of order under of the rules of the Senate.
Another potential downside is the so-called “vote-a-rama,” a one-hour voting session typically militarized by the minority to force a series of politically difficult votes that can be used as water for future campaign attacks. . However, these showdowns have become less of a deterrent, as lawmakers increasingly view exercise as a cost of enacting related legislation.
Perhaps the most difficult task will be to hold their caucus of 50 members together. Without the possibility of error, a single objection could derail the whole process.
Already West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat, has spoken out against Biden’s plan to secure his infrastructure spending by raising the corporate tax rate.
“If I don’t vote to participate, it’s not going anywhere,” Manchin told a West Virginia radio station this week. “So we’re going to have some weight here.”
As with filibuster, either party can benefit from a rule change when exercising power.
There is no precedent for using the budget reconciliation process in this way and it could have far-reaching consequences, Manley said.
If Democrats attempt that maneuver now, Republicans could use the process to impose further tax cuts the next time they control Congress and the White House, he said. And it may embolden them to try to extend the rules even more.
“There are no free shots in the Senate,” he said.