Budget Reconciliation for Coronavirus Relief

Image courtesy of Vox

By Chris Carey

A procedural workaround in the U.S. Senate may guarantee a $1.9 trillion Biden COVID-19 stimulus package without any Republican support. As talks have stalled between President Biden and the Republicans willing to meet and consider voting for his coronavirus proposal as is, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is prepared to go forward with a budget reconciliation measure.

“By the end of the week, we will be finished with the budget resolution, which will be about reconciliation, if needed,” Pelosi said. 

Reconciliation allows for a major piece of legislation to be passed through the Senate without the required 60 vote cloture to halt a filibuster. The reconciliation would take place with collaboration between both House and the Senate Democrats.

There is some historical, as well as recent, precedent in place for the use of reconciliation for major initiatives. In 2010, Democrats utilized the measure in order to work on health care reform; conversely, Republicans under Trump unsuccessfully attempted to use reconciliation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare. 

Along with this quirk in the Senate rulebook comes both spoken and unspoken procedure. Senator Robert Byrd from West Virginia, the longest serving U.S. Senator having held office for 51 years, instituted what is known as Byrd’s Rules.

These rules set forth what can and cannot be included in a budget reconciliation motion. For example, it dictates that anything not having any direct impact on the budget is inadmissible under a reconciliation. Other stipulations that do not comply, per NPR, are proposals that are: “outside the jurisdiction of the committee that wrote them; with minimal or ‘incidental’ budgetary impact; that increase deficits outside of a window of time specified in the budget resolution, and; that would change Social Security.”

These intense regulations on the practice of budget reconciliation contributed to the failure of Republicans to repeal and replace Obamacare. Senator John McCain voted no on the effort of the Senate Republicans because of the rushed nature and procedural ambiguity of the process.

Worrisome for centrists is the idea that a majority of only one vote, as in the case of the 2021 Senate, can pass major legislation. One consideration that can assuage the concerns of those in the middle along with traditionalists is that the budget reconciliation must be attached to a budget; that is, there is only opportunity for a single budget reconciliation for each fiscal year. 

Due to the inability of Congress to agree with the White House on a Fiscal Year 2020 budget, there will be two chances for Democrats to attach a partisan agenda to a budget with a simple majority.”I hope we don’t need it. But if we need it, we will have it,” Pelosi said. The Biden Administration has withheld from instructing Majority Leader Schumer and Speaker Pelosi to go ahead with this option; however, a White House statement indicates there is not much room for compromise, stating that President Biden “reiterated his view that Congress must respond boldly and urgently, and noted many areas which the Republican senators’ proposal does not address.”

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