Democrats work to sell Senate referee on Biden spending bill

Democrats are ramping up talks this week with the Senate parliamentarian to meet a self-imposed deadline to pass President Biden’s spending bill, hoping to clear one of the biggest hurdles to getting the legislation to the floor by Christmas.

More than half of the 12 committees responsible for drafting the bill released text as of Monday. Biden also spoke with Sen. Joe Manchin on Monday in an effort to lock down the West Virginia Democrat, who has once again become a key holdout of passing bills on the president’s legislative agenda. 

But behind the scenes, Democrats still need to get signoff from Elizabeth MacDonough, a nonpartisan Senate referee, before they can bring the spending bill to the floor and try to start debate.

“Committees that received reconciliation instructions have been submitting their final text to the parliamentarian, the Congressional Budget Office and to our Republican counterparts,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). 

“Throughout the week both Republicans and Democrats will hold bipartisan ‘Byrd bath’ meetings with the parliamentarian,” he added, referring to the process by which staffers from both parties will meet with MacDonough simultaneously.

Aides for several committees, including Banking, Commerce, and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, told The Hill that talks with the parliamentarian’s office are ongoing. Other committees, including the Finance Committee, are expected to start the formal Byrd bath process this week.

A Senate Democratic leadership aide said that staff for all 12 of the committees had finished the Democratic-only meetings when MacDonough was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.

After Democrats have their one-on-one meetings, Republicans then meet with the parliamentarian on their own. After those informal talks, the two sides of each of the committees sit down with MacDonough together to pitch their respective cases. 

“They’re doing the Byrd bath meetings this week,” the aide said, adding that it “tracks with the goal of putting the Senate in position to move” the spending legislation before Christmas. 

Democrats had hoped to be able to bring the bill to the Senate floor as soon as this week, under the presumption that the talks with the parliamentarian would wrap by last week. Schumer had privately told colleagues that he wanted to get the bill to the floor this week, but senators are now expected to use this week for the bipartisan negotiations. 

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, said that it was his hope that the talks with the parliamentarian wrapped this week.

“We certainly hope so. That could be the talk of a man’s hope over experience,” Carper said. 

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) added of the talks with the parliamentarian, “That could hold us up, there’s no doubt about that.”

Schumer acknowledged that the process to get the massive spending bill ready for the floor is a “laborious process” but gave a shoutout to MacDonough and her team “for their dedication and focus.” 

“The work is not yet finished, but we’re working hard to put the Senate in a position to get the legislation across the finish line before Christmas,” he said. 

Because Democrats are using the reconciliation process, which allows them to bypass the 60-vote legislative filibuster, the bill has to comply with a series of complex budget rules that put limits on what can be passed in the legislation. 

That process, known as the Byrd rule after the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), includes a requirement that any policy included in the bill must have an impact on federal spending and revenues and that its impact isn’t “merely incidental” to its nonbudgetary goals.

There’s no guarantee that once a committee has its final meeting with MacDonough that they will get a quick response, which could become important as the Senate creeps closer to Schumer’s Christmas timeline. 

Staffers from the Judiciary Committee, Budget Committee and Senate leadership staff made their final pitches nearly two weeks ago to MacDonough on the Democrats immigration plan, which grants 6.5 million foreign nationals a temporary parole status that would give them five-year work and travel permits. They have yet to get guidance on if the plan complies with the budget rules. 

The parliamentarian’s decisions could sink, or bless, some key parts of Democrats’ spending bill. In addition to the immigration plan, MacDonough is likely to litigate, among other things, a fight over Democrats electric vehicle tax credit, several labor-related provisions and a prescription drug pricing plan. 

MacDonough has rejected key priorities for both parties in recent years. In 2017, she rejected a leading GOP plan to repeal and replace ObamaCare, while Democrats jettisoned a plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour earlier this year as part of the coronavirus relief bill after she warned that it didn’t meet the budget rules. 

MacDonough has also frustrated activists by rejecting Democrats’ first two immigration plans, which would have provided a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. 

Top Democrats are weighing trying to overrule the parliamentarian if she decides against the latest plan, and the general idea has buy-in from key Democrats including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Sen. Alex Padilla (Calif.) and Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.). 

But challenging the parliamentarian sparks pushback from some Democratic senators, whose support would ultimately be needed to pass the spending bill.  

Activists are urging Democrats to put someone in the chair who would ignore MacDonough’s immigration guidance, instead of trying to formally overturn her. But even if Democrats went that route, which they have not yet endorsed, Republicans could still strike the immigration language from the bill if they could win over one Democrat.

“It’s called the Byrd rule — what do you think?” Manchin said. “You stick with the parliamentarian … on every issue. You can’t pick and choose.”

Tags Alex Padilla Bob Menendez Chuck Schumer Dick Durbin Joe Biden Joe Manchin Jon Tester Tom Carper

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