Reconciliation Explained: How Democrats Can Pass Climate and Health Bills

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Democrats are close to accomplishing something that has eluded them for the past year and a half: passing legislation to address climate change and health care costs, without any Republican votes.

This has been one of President Biden’s primary goals since he took office, so much so that he and the Democratic leadership have kept their only legislative tool to achieve it: reconciliation.

Here’s what reconciliation means and what Democrats can do about it.

Reconciliation allows Democrats to avoid a Republican in the Senate: Most bills in the Senate these days require 60 votes to pass, rather than a simple majority of 51. That’s because only one senator out of 100 can veto legislation, and the only way to stop it is to get 60 senators to vote. agree to move forward. Rarely does a party have such a supermajority. The Senate is currently split 50-50. Democrats only have a one-vote majority in the Senate, and that’s only because Vice President Harris can cast the deciding vote.

Despite these narrow margins, Biden has actually had significant success with bipartisan legislation. He signed an infrastructure bill and a modest gun control package, the first of its kind in decades. And just this week, the Senate passed legislation to invest in the US semiconductor industry.

But there is virtually no chance that even a single Republican will support Biden’s climate bill. Senate Republicans are generally skeptical of spending federal money to address climate change and health care costs. In addition, Republicans are months away from possibly regaining the majority in the Senate, so they would rather not give Biden a big victory on one of his main campaign promises. So the Democrats are turning to reconciliation.

How reconciliation could help Democrats sidestep Republican opposition: There is a Senate rule that does not allow the filibuster to be used in legislation. Any legislation directly and substantially related to the federal budget cannot be overruled. The original intent of this rule — which has been in place in its current form since the 1980s — was to help Congress quickly retool federal law to match spending bills if necessary. Power of the purse is Congress’ No. 1 job, and senators didn’t want to let certain spending changes get bogged down in the endless debate that a filibuster allows.

But almost from its inception, reconciliation has been used by party leaders to pass policies for which they otherwise could not get a majority. Under President Donald Trump, Republicans have used the reconciliation to push through major changes to the federal tax code that Democrats have condemned.

“What has changed over time is the degree to which reconciliation has become the only way for the majority party … to pass major party-defining legislation,” said Molly Reynolds, a congressional budget expert at the Brookings Institution.

Here’s what happened the last time Democrats tried to use this: In the first few months of Biden’s presidency, Democrats used the reconciliation to pass more coronavirus aid, despite Republican objections.

Democrats then turned to reconciliation with plans to spend $2 trillion to dramatically reshape the federal government on everything from child care to education.

But reconciliation comes with some big catches, and three big ones have snagged Democrats over the past year and a half:

  1. The Senate cannot normally use this tool more than once or twice a year. So they should keep their most important legislation for him.
  2. Everything in the legislation must be directly related to the budget. This is a largely subjective measure decided by a non-partisan parliamentarian in the Senate. Last year, as they hoped to pass a massive spending bill aimed at all parts of the economy, Senate Democrats argued to the congressman that extending the legal status of millions of immigrants was a matter for the federal budget. (She said she wasn’t.)
  3. Any legislation passed in reconciliation still requires a majority to pass. With such a narrow majority, that means Democrats can’t lose a single vote among their caucus. And Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.), plus at times Sen. Kirsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), have dashed their party’s hopes numerous times.

What’s happening now: This current deal came rather suddenly. Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) announced they had reached a deal Wednesday, surprising many of their colleagues, The Washington Post reported. And Manchin agreed to only a fraction of the original $2 trillion spending bill known as Build Back Better; it’s $433 billion and deals mostly with clean energy and climate, as well as prescription drug prices. Manchin was persuaded by promises from Democratic leaders to facilitate domestic oil and natural gas production and by arguments from economists that it would not contribute to inflation, The Post reported.

But Manchin could change his mind again. Or a more liberal senator might refuse their support, hoping to get more money for his priorities. Democrats know this bill is likely the only one they will be able to override Republican objections, potentially for the rest of Biden’s presidency, if Republicans win back one or both houses of Congress this fall.

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