Democrats planning swift moves on budget resolution next week

Budget blueprint would allow lawmakers to use reconciliation to pass coronavirus relief bill with simple majorities

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., talks during an interview with MSNBC in the Russell Rotunda in Washington on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., talks during an interview with MSNBC in the Russell Rotunda in Washington on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 26, 2021 at 1:47pm, Updated at 10:19pm

Democratic leaders plan to take the initial steps next week that are necessary for developing a filibuster-proof coronavirus relief package.

The Senate's expected to make the first move, bringing a fiscal 2021 budget resolution to the floor early next week. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer late Tuesday adjusted his chamber's schedule, notifying lawmakers that the House's session next week would potentially stretch into the weekend.

Sources familiar with the planning said the schedule change would allow the House to adopt the budget resolution when it comes over from the Senate, potentially late next week. There wouldn't be any floor votes the following two weeks, during which House committees would be marking up the reconciliation package itself, based on instructions in the budget resolution.

The House would then be in session for three weeks straight starting the week of Feb. 22. Leaders in both chambers are aiming to send the coronavirus aid bill to President Joe Biden's desk by March 14, when enhanced unemployment benefits run out.

Biden has laid out a $1.9 trillion aid proposal, though Democrats are eyeing some changes and additions, including a package of pension fixes for union retirement plans as well as corporate defined benefit plans.

In a letter to House members, Hoyer, D-Md., wrote that the schedule changes "will give us the option of using budget reconciliation to advance a COVID-19 relief package."

Earlier Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer told reporters he would lay the groundwork to pass an aid bill through the budget reconciliation process, which would allow for passage on a simple majority vote without Republican support.

"We're keeping all options open on the table, including using budget reconciliation,” Schumer said at his weekly news conference. "I informed senators to be prepared that a vote on a budget resolution could come as early as next week."

The budget blueprint, which will contain instructions to authorizing committees to draft pieces of the COVID-19 aid bill within their jurisdictions, can go directly to the Senate floor without a committee markup under a provision of the 1974 law that created the modern budget process.

Senate leaders are aiming to wrap up the budget resolution debate before the chamber's impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump begins Feb. 9.

Each chamber needs to vote on the same numbered concurrent resolution in order to trigger the reconciliation process. The House had been considering adopting its budget by midweek, though there's little likelihood the Senate would be finished in time.

House Democrats could insert a provision in the rule for floor debate "deeming" the likely identical Senate version as having been adopted by the House as soon as it comes over from the Senate, where debate typically takes several days. But Hoyer's schedule change suggests that House lawmakers might wait it out and take up the Senate-adopted budget next weekend.

The 1974 budget law allots up to 50 hours of Senate debate for budget resolutions and then a time-consuming amendment "vote-a-rama," though the majority could yield back some of its 25 hours on the floor. The process usually eats up a week of Senate floor time, but technically the only limit on amendments is the stamina of senators and their aides.

'A national emergency'

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin said Democrats are in a rush and he's giving Republicans “very limited time” to get on board. “We're facing a national emergency with COVID-19 and the economy. We've got to move quickly," he said. "The president believes that this is a high priority and I agree.”

Durbin, D-Ill., cited the March 14 deadline when enhanced unemployment benefits provided in the December aid package run out. Biden wants to increase those benefits from $300 a week to $400 and extend the provisions through September.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., made the case for using reconciliation Tuesday at a press conference to introduce legislation that would increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, which is part of Biden's rescue plan. The incoming Senate Budget chairman said the measure would pass muster under the so-called Byrd rule, which bars extraneous material unrelated to the federal budget from reconciliation bills.

"I think we absolutely can make the case to the parliamentarian that what we're doing is consistent with the Byrd rule," Sanders said, in comments that are at odds with those made by his House counterpart on Monday.

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said it would be "a stretch" for a minimum wage increase to make it through the reconciliation process, but that Democrats would try anyway.

Sanders said the provision would unquestionably reduce deficits by increasing taxable wages and weaning individuals off of benefit programs.

"They'll be able to stand on their own two feet and not need that public assistance, which means it will have a very positive impact on the federal deficit," Sanders said. "So that, I think, is one of the major arguments that we will be making."

Shades of 2017

Democrats are roughly following a precedent laid down in early 2017 when Republicans who controlled the Senate, House and White House attempted to repeal the 2010 health care law.

In January 2017, the Senate Budget chairman at the time, Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., wrote a fiscal 2017 skinny budget resolution with reconciliation instructions with the goal of repealing the law. Instead of the Senate marking up the budget, it was discharged from the committee and went to the floor where the Senate adopted it.

When the Senate budget resolution went to the House, the tax and spending framework skipped the House Budget Committee and went to the Rules Committee, before it was adopted on the House floor.

There is no recent if any precedent for the House originating its own budget resolution without a Budget panel markup, but experts say there's nothing in the 1974 law that prevents it. The committee on Tuesday just got its roster for the 117th Congress, and it would be a time-consuming step to go through the full markup process at this point.

New House Budget ranking member Jason Smith said in a statement Tuesday that skipping a markup would be a "failure of transparency" and would deprive panel members from both parties of input into the process. "Mere days after President Biden called for unity, this would be a decidedly divisive approach," the Missouri Republican said.

Once a budget resolution is adopted, House and Senate committees can send the Budget panels their reconciliation recommendations to bundle into a combined package. That measure has a 20-hour Senate time limit, but also has a vote-a-rama process.

Republicans who are part of a group negotiating with the White House are wary that Democrats are signaling they're ready to blow up bipartisan talks already.

“It's going to be the White House and the Democrats' call as to whether they want to work with a bipartisan team to improve the legislation or whether they want to push through a reconciliation, a bill which came with only one party participating," Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said Tuesday.

Next steps from Democrats on the relief package process will be “a good indication of how the White House intends to work in the future," added Romney.

Schumer said he was prepared to wait a bit to see if Republicans were amenable to a “big, bold” aid package — but not for long. 

"We have to see what they say in the next few days,” Schumer said. “Some of the comments admittedly have been disheartening.....but we're always hopeful that some of them will see the light. And remember, even on reconciliation, Republicans can join us and vote for it. That's happened many times in the past."

Recent history, however, shows reconciliation bills rarely attract much bipartisan support, with a few exceptions.

Lindsey McPherson, Rachel Oswald and Doug Sword contributed to this report.