Schumer gets his game changer
A decision by the Senate parliamentarian to allow Democrats to advance multiple reconciliation packages this year is a game-changer that gives Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) multiple paths to advance President Biden’s agenda.
At a minimum, Schumer will be able to use budget reconciliation rules to bypass Republican filibusters two more times this year — just as he did to pass Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan last month on a 50-49 vote.
Schumer now has the flexibility to advance Biden’s infrastructure spending and tax reform goals in two separate packages and also to raise the federal debt limit by year’s end.
It eases the pressure to get rid of the filibuster — something that Schumer doesn’t have 50 votes to do — and means the progressive grassroots is likely to get more of what it wants from the Senate, as long as Schumer can keep his Democratic senators united.
“This is cutting a whole new cloth here,” said Bill Hoagland, a veteran Senate watcher who is now the senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Republicans repeatedly used the filibuster to block former President Obama’s agenda during his first six years in office when McConnell was minority leader. They were able to do so even though Democrats had 59 seats in the Senate for much of Obama’s first two years in office.
With just a bare majority in the Senate and Vice President Harris breaking ties, it appeared it would be difficult for Biden to move big legislation without compromising with Republicans.
Yet on the first major piece of business — the coronavirus relief package — Biden did not have to win over Republican votes after they offered him a proposal less than a third of what he wanted to spend.
Monday’s new ruling means Schumer and Biden can use the same budgetary rules to move at least two more big packages this year, something that could help them meet their vows of bringing change to Washington.
Schumer’s spokesman lauded the parliamentarian’s decision Monday as “an important step forward,” while a Democratic aide said it sends the signal that Schumer and Democrats can get around the GOP.
“Reconciliation is a great way to get around having to repeal filibuster,” the aide said.
The Senate Democratic caucus hasn’t yet decided how it will proceed with the new leeway say Democratic aides, but the expectation is that Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will revise the 2021 budget resolution to create a new reconciliation vehicle to pass Biden’s $2.25 trillion Build Back Better infrastructure package.
Revising the 2021 budget will require both chambers to pass another concurrent resolution, which requires 15 hours of debate and a vote-a-rama on the Senate floor.
That path would allow them to move forward on the infrastructure package while they wait for the White House to deliver its budget request for 2022 to Congress. The administration’s “skinny budget” — a preliminary proposal — is expected on the Hill this week.
Revising the 2021 budget will then free up the Democratic leaders to pass another budget resolution for fiscal 2022 to set the stage for a third reconciliation bill to pass the second half of Biden’s infrastructure agenda.
That second tranche will be focused on social needs such as expanded child care, free community college, universal prekindergarten, a permanent child tax credit and other top priorities of their liberal wing.
Democratic aides say proposals to strengthen the 2010 Affordable Care Act — Obama’s signature accomplishment — and to lower the cost of prescription drugs are also candidates for future reconciliation packages.
The parliamentarian’s ruling Monday is a victory for the Democratic leader because it will allow him to keep the first infrastructure package more focused on traditional infrastructure priorities such as highways, bridges, ports and transit systems that are more likely to secure the support of moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz), who both oppose ditching the filibuster.
Democratic leaders also hope the first tranche of infrastructure spending may even pick up a few Republican votes, which would give Biden a major bipartisan accomplishment and a chance to say that he has restored some civility to Washington.
That outcome looks doubtful, however, with Republicans feeling stung over the signals from Democrats that they will move without them. Biden has argued that a bill can be bipartisan if polls show Republican voters back it even if not a single GOP lawmaker votes for it. GOP lawmakers see things differently.
Still, some Democratic policy experts hope the parliamentarian’s ruling could provide an incentive for at least some Republicans to help craft the details of Biden’s first infrastructure package.
“If Democrats are able to really move at least one more reconciliation bill, Republicans eventually have to make a choice if they’re just going to complain about it or actually try to get to the table,” said Jim Kessler, a former Schumer aide who is now executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a Democratic think tank.
A second Democratic aide said the parliamentarian’s ruling is effectively a warning to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans that they will be able to move the president’s agenda even if GOP senators refuse to support it.
“It’s a warning shot across the bow that Republicans can’t keep us in a place of absolute obstruction,” said the aide. “They are in fact in the minority and they’re going to have to suffer in the minority in the same way we did.”
Another potential benefit to breaking up Biden’s infrastructure agenda into two pieces is that it allows Democratic leaders to delay action on the ambitious social agenda that progressives want to pass along with traditional infrastructure — like free community college.
The risk of piling all of the party’s infrastructure priorities into one bill is that it might collapse under its own weight, especially if centrist Democrats such as Manchin see the people-focused infrastructure proposals as stretching the definition of infrastructure too far.
“It would be much more complicated, much less likely to get support,” Hoagland said of the prospect of trying to pass all of Biden’s infrastructure agenda in one bill.
Lawmakers also have to raise the federal debt limit, which will expire on July 31 of this year. At that point the Treasury Department is expected to invoke “extraordinary measures” to extend the nation’s borrowing authority for a few more months but the issue will have to be addressed by Congress by year’s end.
The Democratic caucus has to now decide what it wants to do substantively and then determine with the parliamentarian whether those priorities comply with the Senate’s Byrd Rule, which sets the parameters for what can be passed with just 50 votes under budget reconciliation.
Democratic and Republican leadership aides still have to litigate before the Senate parliamentarian what can be included in the future reconciliation bills.
A spokesman for Schumer said Monday that “no decisions have been made on a legislative path forward” and that “some parameters still need to be worked out.”