“The waiting,” as Tom Petty once sang, “is the hardest part.”
But what comes next after President Joe Biden’s delayed fiscal 2022 budget release on Friday may prove an even heavier lift for a divided Congress and a Democratic majority at odds with itself over Biden’s big-ticket infrastructure and other signature policies.
House Democrats will start drafting their appropriations bills after the Memorial Day break, with subcommittee markups beginning June 24. Senate markups may begin the following month, according to Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt.
But given a bitter partisan dispute over the allocation of funds to defense and nondefense programs, some top lawmakers are already convinced the process could stall out until late in the year.
“That issue is not going away and it will probably be with us at Christmas,” according to Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the top Republican on Senate Appropriations. Biden wants a 16 percent boost for nondefense appropriations but less than a 2 percent increase for defense — a cut in real terms below current levels — upending the “parity” principle both parties have tried to enforce for the past decade.
In a floor speech Thursday in advance of Biden’s budget rollout, Leahy said it was “essential that Congress, on a bipartisan and bicameral basis, work with the president to negotiate budget toplines” to be able to start writing the spending bills for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.
Sand in the hourglass
Meanwhile, Democrats are divided over how quickly to jettison bipartisan talks over an infrastructure package, which are creeping along with only incremental signs of progress.
Democrats such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III and Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, the Senate Environment and Public Works chairman, want to keep talking. Others, like Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., are anxious to skip to the budget reconciliation process and cut out Republicans who they say aren’t really serious about a deal.
“I will just tell you the sand is quickly moving out of the hourglass,” Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said on a press call Thursday. “The president is trying to see if he can find a bipartisan agreement here, but we are accelerating our push on the Senate Finance Committee to make sure that we are ready to make sure that inaction is not going to be advanced by this Republican effort."
Release of Biden’s budget blueprint — the major components of which have already been publicized in the 58-page initial appropriations request delivered April 9 and two separate longer-term proposals costing around $4 trillion over a decade — is the catalyst for the congressional budget and appropriations cycle.
Now lawmakers will have access to the detailed proposals they’ll need to start drafting legislation that so far has only been fleshed out in topline fact sheets. The Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation will get to work producing their own estimates of the White House figures, which lawmakers on the Budget, Appropriations, Ways and Means and Finance and other panels will need for their own scoring purposes.
But even if Democrats wanted to jump right to budget reconciliation, which would enable them to pass a filibuster-proof package, there’s a sense among people familiar with the deliberations that the timetable could slip.
Some lawmakers want to know what the eventual reconciliation package looks like before they commit to voting for a budget blueprint with the reconciliation instructions, sources said.
Sanders has repeatedly said in recent days that Democrats need to “move quickly” on Biden’s plans. But he hasn't spelled out a process or timetable for bringing a fiscal 2022 budget resolution to the floor.
And House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., says the most likely outcome, at least initially, is a “deeming” resolution to set a discretionary target for House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., to carve up. Sources familiar with the planning said that measure could come to the House floor shortly after the chamber reconvenes for votes the week of June 14.
After that, Yarmuth said Democrats may consider what he calls a “reconciliation resolution,” or a stripped-down version of a budget blueprint that is basically just a vehicle for instructions to the authorizing and tax committees to write the reconciliation bill.
While no decisions have been made, that reconciliation bill — if the House approves it— could go straight to the Senate floor for amendment, the same process Democrats used earlier this year for what became a nearly $1.9 trillion pandemic relief law. That would bypass almost certain party-line votes in Senate committees of jurisdiction.
Waiting for CBO
Democratic leaders have a little more time to plot strategy, as they wait for their own “scorekeepers” to analyze the Biden budget and update the “baseline” used to measure the cost of the president’s proposals and their own.
The CBO evaluation could take at least three weeks to produce, if history is any guide. Over the past two decades, the quickest the CBO has been able to move on even a preliminary analysis is 22 days, according to a CQ Roll Call review of CBO and Office of Management and Budget records.
There’s no statutory requirement for the Budget committees to wait for the CBO’s analysis to act on a budget resolution.
For example in 2001, when Republicans were anxious to get moving on what became President George W. Bush’s $1.35 trillion tax cut package, they were marking up a fiscal 2002 budget in the House three weeks after Bush delivered his preliminary plan on Feb. 28, 2001.
The CBO and Joint Committee on Taxation didn’t even have Bush’s full budget until April 9. But both agencies had their analyses ready by May 4, in time for House Republicans to introduce their initial version of the full tax package on May 15.
Still, some budget veterans say it makes sense for Democrats to wait until they have the information from congressional scorekeepers — and that they’ll need that time and then some to figure out what kind of budget blueprint can get the needed 218 votes in the House and 50 in the Senate.
If all goes smoothly, in theory lawmakers in both chambers could have the month of July to pass the reconciliation mega-bill that implements the infrastructure, climate, health care, child care and other proposals Biden and top Democrats want to pass.
If not, the deliberations could bleed past Labor Day and the pending expiration of enhanced unemployment benefits on Sept. 6. That would set the big legislative effort on a course to collide with a potential debt ceiling crisis, if Treasury forecasters are right that they could run out of borrowing room sooner than expected, and the Sept. 30 deadline for a stopgap funding bill to avoid a partial government shutdown.
It’s enough to make top Democrats hum a line from another Tom Petty track: “That’s the way it goes, it’ll all work out.”
David Lerman, Lindsey McPherson and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.