02.23.21 Washington Update

Bipartisanship and budget reconciliation don’t always go together.  That fact may have far-reaching consequences for President Biden’s legislative agenda in the 117th Congress.

In a 50-50 world, using a tool that only requires a simple majority to pass legislation—and quite significant legislation, at that—may get Democrats the bill they want, but not the outcome they need.  President Biden will get his COVID relief/stimulus bill, but one wonders what it will mean for bipartisan cooperation over the next two years—and beyond.

The rejoinder can already be heard: Republicans show no sign of cooperating with Biden—though several GOP senators believe they sought compromise at $600 billion, which was summarily rebuffed—so he has decided to plow forward without them.  But if the early signal is sent that Republicans don’t matter, the partisanship now roiling the Capitol will only intensify.  Biden’s central organizing principle, unity, simply won’t hold up.

Republicans believe that Biden and the Democrats are making a bet, which could pay political dividends.  Though the “51 or bust” strategy may inflame partisan fires, if Democrats secure consequential policy wins, the thinking goes, maybe the country will reward them in the mid-term elections.  It’s possible.  But Republicans are also aware that this a gamble against historical tides: the mid-terms rarely bode well for the incumbent President’s party.  And Democrats may be overestimating what budget reconciliation can actually deliver. A $15-an-hour minimum wage?  Time will tell.

To look ahead, then: Official Washington is already chattering about Reconciliation #2, anticipated to cover infrastructure and climate change.  But as has been endlessly reported, reconciliation (in the Senate, that is) imposes strict tests that the policy adventurous usually fail (think: a clean energy standard or electric vehicle mandates).  Unless Senate Democrats are prepared to defenestrate decades of parliamentary precedent, that will continue to be the case.  And that means the “policy” part of infrastructure largely falls by the wayside.

But to build back better, policy is desperately needed—meaningful permitting reform, for example, so that building actually occurs.  Without that, Democrats are left with…spending lots of money.  As Republicans see it, that may be what congressional Democrats want, but whether it’s what they need—politically—is another question.

As to unity, it’s not clear that Democrats have it on their side.  With reconciliation the chosen vehicle, and with only 221 members in the House and 50 in the Senate, Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) and Majority Leader Schumer (D-NY), respectively, have little margin for error.  Any misstep with progressives likely alienates Democratic moderates and creates a need for Republican votes.  But don’t hold your breath. GOP centrists oppose Neera Tanden’s nomination for OMB Director, as they are unlikely to allow Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WVA) to outflank them on the right.  As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) predicted, reconciliation “will unify our party.”  He then said, “I don’t think many Republicans are going to be for very many of the things that are coming out of this administration.”  He was right.


COVID Reconciliation Package – The House will vote on the Democrats’ COVID-19 relief proposal in the next few days, either Friday or Saturday.  Following House passage, the bill will be sent to the Senate, where consideration can begin as soon as next week.

The bill will go straight to the Senate floor, bypassing committees.  Senate Democratic committee chairs don’t see this as a problem, as they “pre-conferenced” language with their House counterparts.  Schumer may offer a substitute amendment to appease Democratic demands—of both the liberal and moderate kind—and deal with Byrd-rule problems raised by the Senate parliamentarian.

In private, the Senate parliamentarian will opine on disputed provisions in the reconciliation package, most notably on the minimum wage.  Moreover, the Congressional Budget Office found that the COVID bill, as drafted by the House, exceeds the $1.9 trillion reconciliation spending limit. This means that several billion in proposed spending will need to be cut at some point during the process.  Also, prepare for another vote-a-rama, during which Republicans will file hundreds of amendments, cast Byrd Rule objections and raise budget points-of-order.

As the Senate awaits the reconciliation package, floor time will be used to vote on Biden nominees. Linda Thomas-Greenfield is expected to be confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and ditto for Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture (for the second time).  Nominees for the Departments of Commerce, Energy, State, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Labor, and the Environmental Protection Agency are all awaiting consideration by the full Senate. This week will also feature committee hearings for Attorney General, the U.S. Trade Representative, as well as secretaries of Health and Human Services and Interior, and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.


House – In addition to passing the COVID bill (the “American Rescue Plan Act of 2021”), the House will vote on the “Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act” and the “Equality Act,” which addresses discrimination against LGBTQ Americans. Next week, the House takes up H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” which is the House Democrats’ campaign, election, and government reform legislation. The House will also consider the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.” For the week of March 8, the House could vote on the Senate-amended reconciliation package and send it to President Biden.