That was fast: President Biden’s unity message has run aground, as both sides revert to their corners on policy. Polarization will only intensify, as Biden’s executive order blitz (this week will be immigration) continues apace, and budget reconciliation appears to be the Democrats’ preferred path to pass Biden’s COVID package.
As with executive fiat, reconciliation is a potent tool to avoid bipartisanship. Democrats can pass the bill in the Senate with 51 votes, no Republicans needed. All this strips real meaning from Biden’s unity plea. But more to the point, just how Democrats proceed—that is, will they follow Senate long-standing precedents on budget process?—will determine what gets passed and, for legislative purposes at least, the tone and tenor of the 117th Congress.
The reconciliation process brings no guarantees. In a 50-50 Senate, getting 51 votes is no sure thing—prepare for some serious arm-twisting and deal-cutting. And do not assume, with Speaker Pelosi’s five-seat majority, that getting to 218 in the House will be any easier. Every single Democratic member can potentially disrupt the legislative process if they choose to. Progressive lawmakers in both chambers are fighting to incorporate a $15 minimum wage increase, even if the parliamentarian concludes it violates the Byrd Rule. That is just one of many progressive priorities that could alienate centrist Democrats.
The news that Senators Joe Manchin (D-WVA) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) oppose eliminating the filibuster was unsurprising. The more important, and immediate, question is their tolerance for employing the nuclear option on reconciliation, not just on the minimum wage, but also significant regulatory and spending provisions that present major difficulties under regular order. As Biden economic adviser Jared Bernstein said over the weekend, the public doesn’t much care about parliamentary maneuvering; they just want a bill. In the end, Manchin et al. may agree.
But make no mistake: the arcana of Senate procedure does matter for legislating and legislators, and perceptions (on either side) that rules are being circumvented can only inflame an already partisan Capitol. This will make President Biden’s earnest effort to unify much harder.
Meanwhile, the wheels of process are turning. Democratic committee chairs have been submitting their reconciliation priorities to Senate and House Democratic leadership. Ten Senate Republicans, enough to break a filibuster with Democrats (and Independents), are actively promoting their $600 billion COVID package. This package includes funding for healthcare providers; enhanced unemployment benefits; childcare, schools; small businesses; behavioral health; direct payments; and increases for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Democratic leaders want a final COVID-related reconciliation package by mid-March, when enhanced unemployment benefits expire. This is a highly ambitious timeline that will be difficult to achieve. For perspective, it took Republicans 56 days to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act after a budget resolution was passed, and it took 197 days to process the American Health Care Act in 2017, which ultimately failed in the Senate. The following table provides even greater historical context.
Senate: This week, Alejandro Mayorkas and Pete Buttigieg are expected to be confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security and U.S. Secretary of Transportation, respectively. Following the confirmations, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) could file cloture on the motion to proceed on the budget resolution, which will contain reconciliation instructions for Senate committees. (The House Democrats filed their budget resolution text this afternoon and reports indicate the same text will also be used by Senate Democrats.)
A “vote-a-rama” may take place on Thursday, when hundreds of political amendments will be filed. This could produce some support between hard-right conservatives and progressive Senators on policies that the business community opposes. In this new populist environment, many Senate Republicans cannot be taken for granted as pro-big business.
Look for Leader Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to protect their 2022 members from politically difficult votes. However, a few may be taken if the leaders agree to side-by-side amendments. Some populist amendments could be agreed to by unanimous consent or through en-bloc amendment packages, as opposed to putting members on record. There is no time limit to the vote-a-rama and it is up to the members to reach an agreement, usually late at night, to move to a vote on final passage.
House – The House is back in session this week to work on their budget resolution, which will likely be passed on Wednesday. Also expect a vote on the bipartisan National Apprenticeship Act, which would authorize $3.5 billion for apprenticeships and other training opportunities. During the weeks of February 8 and 15, House committees that receive reconciliation instructions will convene and remotely vote out their reports to the House Budget Committee. The House could then return the week of February 22 to move the reconciliation package on the House floor.