Reconciling Reconciliation

Democrats in Congress are working on pushing through President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package through what’s known as the budget reconciliation process. Allow us to break it down. 

What the heck is reconciliation?

Budget reconciliation allows Congress to pass legislation that impacts tax, direct spending or the debt limit with fewer hurdles than a typical bill might encounter. This kind of bill can pass with simple majorities in both houses, meaning less opportunity for Republicans to block it without a 60-vote hurdle for Senate passage. 

Why would Democrats pursue it?

Passing legislation with 60 votes in the Senate has been increasingly challenging for both parties because of narrow partisan control. Because Democrats have control of the House and the Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris as a tiebreaker, the Democrats can pass COVID relief through reconciliation with Democratic votes and without Republican filibuster. But there is a tradeoff for the Democrats who control Congress when they take this route — there are limits to what they can include.

Who gets to decide what can be included? 

Often referred to as the chamber’s “referee,” the nonpartisan, unelected Parliamentarian — currently Elizabeth MacDonough, the first woman to serve in the role — interprets the Senate’s rules. She determines whether each reconciliation bill provision and amendment complies with the Senate’s reconciliation rules. She made news last week when she ruled the Democrats’ bid to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour did not fall within them. 

Where does reconciliation stand now?

House Democrats passed the COVID package early Saturday morning. After another Senate vote-a-rama, Senate Democrats hope to pass it by week’s end. If successful, the bill would then go back to the House for further action. Democrats remain confident Congress will approve the bill before unemployment benefits expire in mid-March.

Democrats may model Republicans, who passed two budgets with reconciliation instructions in the first year of Trump’s presidency. Democrats are using the FY21 budget resolution for the COVID package and could then try to pass an FY22 budget to advance the president’s agenda.