Georgia just delivered Democrats their most powerful weapon
Get ready to hear these two words incessantly over the next two years: budget reconciliation.
It’s a powerful procedural tool that can steer billions of dollars and reshape a host of social policies all while evading the dreaded filibuster. And with Democrats clinching the Senate majority after winning the Georgia runoffs, senior lawmakers are already vowing to deploy it.
“This, of course, gives us the opportunity to have a very different set of choices, and that’s what the election was all about in Georgia last night,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Wednesday when asked about the possible use of reconciliation. Wyden is now on the cusp of chairing the Finance Committee, which would make him the Senate’s top tax policy writer.
Some restrictions exist on how reconciliation can be used; it’s not all-powerful. But by allowing the Senate to pass legislation with a simple majority, it will prove critical to advancing President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda. That’s particularly true if Democrats decide against nixing the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold, which is unlikely amid moderates’ resistance.
And Democrats will actually have as many as have three opportunities during the 117th Congress to use reconciliation. That’s because Congress can unlock the special procedure in each budget resolution, and lawmakers never adopted a fiscal 2021 budget resolution and can still pass one for fiscal 2022 and fiscal 2023 on the horizon.
Technically, Democrats could break each reconciliation attempt into three pieces of legislation — dealing with spending, revenues and the debt limit — making for a total of nine bills over two years. But it’s far from clear whether they would choose that route.
There is precedent for using reconciliation twice in a single year, however. Republicans tapped reconciliation in 2017 in their failed bid to repeal Obamacare and then later to successfully pass their tax overhaul. Democrats previously used it to pass much of the Affordable Care Act after former GOP Sen. Scott Brown’s surprise victory took away Democrats’ 60th vote.
Reconciliation can typically be used to speed passage for any legislation with a significant effect on the federal budget, and Democrats could use it to promote their priorities on economic stimulus, health care, climate change and other priorities.
Before the election in early November, when Democrats were bullish on capturing the Senate, Speaker Nancy Pelosi told a health advocacy group that Democrats “will almost certainly be passing a reconciliation bill, not only for the Affordable Care Act, but for what we may want to do further on the pandemic and some other issues that relate to the well-being of the American people.”
Democrats have also eyed reconciliation for a massive infrastructure plan backed by a prospective Biden administration.
“I don’t think there’s any question of whether we’d use it, if we had to,” House Budget Chair John Yarmuth told POLITICO last year. “The possibilities are endless. I think you’d want to do it for the biggest possible package you could.”
While Yarmuth will oversee budget action in the House, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — a staunch supporter of “Medicare for All” and a reconciliation fan — is next in line to chair the Senate Budget Committee. Of course, new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will have a lot to say over whatever Sanders’ committee produces.
Implementing budget reconciliation will also require Democrats to wade through thorny procedural obstacles. They will almost certainly face challenges from Republicans related to the Byrd rule, named for the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, which limits the scope of amendments and can kill extraneous items in reconciliation legislation that some Democrats might push to include.
Meanwhile, House Republicans are already denouncing an unrelated rules change approved this week that exempts coronavirus and climate change-related legislation from so-called PAYGO budget principles, which require new spending to be offset elsewhere though it’s often waived. The change amounts to a compromise between House progressives who wanted to ditch PAYGO entirely and moderates who pushed to keep it largely intact.
“It’s only the second day of the new Congress and already House Democrats are attempting to push through their radical agenda and hoping no one will notice,” Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, said earlier this week.
Still, Democrats are far from unified when it comes to their fiscal priorities. House moderates this week pledged to keep an eye on the PAYGO rules change, arguing that the party shouldn’t haphazardly waive budget requirements amid rising deficits. And progressives have already promised to push for cuts to defense spending, much to the discomfort of more vulnerable members.
With a narrow majority in the Senate and a smaller majority in the House, Democrats will have little room for defections.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a chair of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, said Wednesday that Democrats should prioritize coronavirus relief and job creation when it comes to reconciliation, including robust oversight to ensure that taxpayer dollars are well spent. More broadly, the Blue Dogs have pledged to protect “against the excesses” when it comes to a one-party control of government.
But progressives see an opportunity to go big that Democrats can’t afford to waste.
“We have to be bold,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said last year when asked about the prospects for Democrats’ budget plans. “This is not a time for meekness. This is not a time for incremental change.”