Sweeping budget blueprint for pandemic aid readied for floor action

Measure would set the stage for quick movement on President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, bypassing Senate filibuster

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III is one of the most closely watched Democrats, if not the most closely watched, in the year’s upcoming legislative battles in a Senate divided 50-50.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III is one of the most closely watched Democrats, if not the most closely watched, in the year’s upcoming legislative battles in a Senate divided 50-50. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 29, 2021 at 9:47pm

Democrats on Monday will kick off a convoluted process to try to pass President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package, through a budget resolution that would direct two dozen House and Senate committees to draft pieces of a filibuster-proof reconciliation bill.

The effort promises to be the most wide-ranging budget reconciliation measure since 1993, when President Bill Clinton in his first year signed a sweeping deficit reduction package passed by a Democratic Congress with policy components written by 25 committees.

The contents were still in flux as of Friday night, but the current plan calls for 11 Senate committees and 13 House panels to receive instructions to develop pieces of the aid package, which the budget would cap at $1.9 trillion over a decade.

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One noticeable absence from the list of Senate committees, which generally line up with similar panels of jurisdiction in the House, is Energy and Natural Resources. By contrast, House Energy and Commerce would receive an instruction, according to sources briefed on the proposal.

The Biden plan would provide $5 billion in aid to low-income households to help pay energy bills this winter but is otherwise bereft of energy-related items. However, once a panel receives reconciliation instructions, how it hits the budget target is up to them, and such flexibility means it’s possible House Democrats could push for other climate change-related legislation to be part of the package.

Giving incoming Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Joe Manchin III a similar directive could put him at risk politically, as his home state of West Virginia is the nation’s second-largest coal producer and is ranked sixth for natural gas production, according to the Energy Information Administration. Even though the budget resolution doesn’t specify what legislative changes should be made, Republicans could turn Manchin’s vote into a talking point.

Manchin is one of the most closely watched Democrats, if not the most closely watched, in the year’s upcoming legislative battles in a Senate divided 50-50. West Virginia voters backed former President Donald Trump by 39 points last year, and a Manchin ‘no’ vote could sink Democratic bills if he considers them too far to the left.

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And as a practical matter, if Republicans offered an amendment to strike an Energy and Natural Resources instruction, it would have to go to the House for a re-vote.

Leaving it out to begin with would avoid such a result while preserving flexibility for House and Senate negotiators to use the House Energy and Commerce instructions for the coronavirus aid package. Manchin could always vote against the final bill if Democrats insert any unrelated anti-fossil fuels provisions.

‘Skinny’ budget timetable

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., plans to begin the process by releasing a fiscal 2021 budget resolution on Monday, according to sources familiar with the planning. The “skinny” budget resolution, intended only as a vehicle for the COVID-19 reconciliation bill, is expected to go to the Rules Committee on Tuesday and hit the floor Wednesday.

In the Senate, incoming Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is expected to introduce an identical budget resolution early in the week. If all goes according to plan, after a few days of debate the Senate would proceed to the “vote-a-rama” amendment process on Thursday with a goal of adopting the budget Friday morning.

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Since both chambers need to adopt the same numbered concurrent resolution, the House could have to vote again, possibly next weekend, if the Senate amends the text during the vote-a-rama. 

The process is being closely coordinated between House and Senate Democratic leaders, who are aiming to have the legislation ready for Biden to sign before March 14. That’s when a federal $300 weekly unemployment insurance supplement enacted last month as well as extensions of regular benefits lapse.

The White House said this week it has dropped consideration of moving the package in two separate bills. As a result, Democrats are preparing to include all or most of what Biden has proposed in a reconciliation bill that can pass the Senate with a simple majority.

The mix of committees charged with writing the $1.9 trillion package could change slightly in the final resolution unveiled next week. The 13 House committees that would receive instructions under the current proposal include the following:

  • Ways and Means
  • Energy and Commerce
  • Financial Services
  • Agriculture
  • Education and Labor
  • Foreign Affairs
  • Homeland Security
  • Natural Resources
  • Oversight and Reform
  • Science, Space and Technology
  • Small Business
  • Transportation and Infrastructure
  • Veterans’ Affairs      

The 11 Senate committees getting instructions include:

  • Finance
  • Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
  • Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs
  • Agriculture
  • Commerce, Science and Transportation
  • Environment and Public Works
  • Foreign Relations
  • Homeland Security
  • Indian Affairs
  • Small Business
  • Veterans’ Affairs

The Appropriations committees won't get reconciliation instructions, but they'll work with the authorizing committees on large portions of the bill that will contain discretionary funds.

The authorizers will include discretionary spending in their legislative portions, which is unusual but has been done in the past. The move will also prevent appropriators from breaching statutory spending caps for fiscal 2021.

The exact timetable for wrapping up the aid package remains in flux. The goal is for both chambers to adopt the budget resolution in time to allow House committees to write and report their portions during the weeks of Feb. 8 and Feb. 15.

The House Budget Committee could assemble the reconciliation legislation and report it the week of Feb. 22, with House consideration of the package possible that same week.

After passing the bill, the House would send it to the Senate as early as the week of March 1. With the idea being House and Senate Democrats will "pre-conference" the package, the current thinking is to skip Senate committee markups and go straight to the floor.

The schedule that is envisioned assumes just about everything goes as planned. Some budget experts expect it will be difficult for Democrats to pass legislation through the reconciliation process as quickly as they hope to.

Democrats are hoping to avoid the adoption of any amendments to keep both budget resolutions identical to speed their adoption.

Nevertheless, Republicans and Democrats both are preparing amendments with the goal of forcing members of the other party to take politically painful votes on amendments that could come back to haunt them in the next election.