Huge budget reconciliation package may not move until fall

House Budget chief preparing to write instructions for about $4 trillion in spending but could remove any bipartisan agreement

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said "fish or cut bait" time is approaching.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said "fish or cut bait" time is approaching. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 15, 2021 at 1:16pm, Updated at 3:49pm

Final passage of a sweeping budget reconciliation package to enact President Joe Biden’s fiscal policy agenda on infrastructure, child care, education and more likely won’t occur until sometime this fall, according to House Democrats’ point man on budget issues.

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth told reporters Tuesday after the Democratic Caucus met with top White House officials that his plan was to mark up a fiscal 2022 budget resolution — a prerequisite for any filibuster-proof reconciliation bill — in mid-July. Democrats would then try to adopt the budget with reconciliation instructions on the floor before the August recess, he said.

The White House, meanwhile, is giving negotiators another week to 10 days to reach agreement on a bipartisan infrastructure package before fully moving to the reconciliation process, according to Yarmuth, D-Ky.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates later said Biden adviser Steve Ricchetti didn't set any "deadline or cutoff" for the bipartisan talks, but noted they would "take stock" of the situation after that seven-to-10 day period.

Yarmuth said his committee is preparing to write reconciliation instructions for about $4 trillion in spending but could remove any bipartisan agreement from those instructions.

“We’re assuming right now that everything will be done by reconciliation,” Yarmuth said, including Biden’s infrastructure, child care and other proposals and perhaps some additions backed by congressional Democrats. “That doesn’t preclude a bipartisan agreement. If one happens, we just take that part out of the instructions. But right now, we’re assuming everything will be in.”

Biden sent Congress two separate proposals earlier this year, totaling more than $4 trillion. The first would finance highways, bridges, clean energy subsidies, rural broadband access, home care for the elderly and more. The second would fund initiatives such as universal preschool, two years of free community college, assistance with child care expenses and a new paid family and medical leave benefit.

Those items would be financed by an array of tax increases on corporations and wealthy households as well as enhanced IRS tax enforcement initiatives aimed at wealthier households, private firms and cryptocurrency assets.

G-10 talks

Biden spent weeks negotiating with a group of Senate Republicans led by West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito before calling off those talks amid a stalemate. But the White House has since been working with a group of 10 senators — five from each party — to iron out details of an infrastructure proposal on which they tentatively agreed last week.

That bipartisan group has offered about $579 billion above current spending projections over the next five years on what it considers “hard” infrastructure — roads, bridges, waterways and the like. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats have said that’s not enough, and it’s unlikely her caucus would support such a plan unless they had assurances more spending was in the offing.

The five Republican senators in the bipartisan group briefed their party colleagues on the outlines of their plan, which includes $578 billion in offsets, according to Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a member of the group.

The offsets include indexing the gas tax, which Biden has indicated he opposes, as well as fees for electric vehicles, which do not currently pay into the Highway Trust Fund. It also includes about $100 billion in unspent COVID-19 relief money, including $25 billion from returned unemployment support, said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who characterized the GOP Conference as “open” to the plan.

Romney said the group was unhappy about the amount suggested for rail and transit but recognized “this was a negotiation, and we were more successful in some areas than others.” He said he was “very optimistic” at least 10 Republicans would back the plan.

“I don’t think we need 100 senators to vote for a plan,” Romney said. “We need at least 60, and on both sides of the aisle, there’s an openness to continuing to work together to see if we can get the job done.”

How big and bold?

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said he planned to meet with Senate Budget Committee Democrats on Wednesday, with a goal of adopting a budget resolution and passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill before the August recess.  

Schumer is expected to urge committee members to support a “unity budget” that could be ready in July and to make sure that climate change and “caregiving” elements are included, according to a senior Democratic aide not authorized to speak publicly. 

He’s also expected to call for the budget blueprint to make room for initiatives to reduce electricity emissions by 80 percent by 2030, provide rebates for “clean” vehicles and fund aid to farmers and manufacturers to help reduce carbon emissions, according to the aide. 

Advancing the next reconciliation package could be more challenging than approving the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief law enacted in March, given that a handful of Senate Democrats haven’t yet indicated they are willing to go along with the “big, bold” package Schumer plans to put forward.

Yarmuth said he is keeping a close eye on the very narrow margin that Democrats have in both the House and the Senate, saying that remaining united “is the only chance” Democrats have to advance these packages through reconciliation.

“Our caucus understands that, essentially, we’re all Joe Manchin,” he said, referring to the West Virginia Democratic senator who has become one of the most important swing votes in the chamber. “With the margins we have, everybody has the ability to tank whatever we’re trying to do. Here, we’ve got four votes; there, they have zero margin. So essentially, everybody’s in a position to sabotage whatever we’re doing.”

After the meeting with White House officials, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., was somewhat skeptical of the two-path approach, given concerns that moderate Senate Democrats might not support a second package that includes more left-leaning priorities.

“If there was to be, by some miracle, a smaller bipartisan deal, it would be very difficult to find the votes for that in the House unless there’s a simultaneous movement and agreement of the full reconciliation package with 50 votes in the Senate,” she said.

Jayapal said that progressive support of a bipartisan package would be “predicated on it, first of all, being a bill that we like and, secondly, on the two moving together.”

She also said progressives wouldn’t support increases on the gas tax or user fees.

Yarmuth told reporters that in addition to including reconciliation instructions for both of the Biden administration’s plans, “other things” could be included in the final package, but decisions haven’t been made.

Lawmakers may need to include a debt limit increase in the package, for instance. And several Democrats have been pushing for months to include immigration-related proposals in budget reconciliation.

And, among others, Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has been advocating a health care package, including extending Medicare access to individuals younger than 65; adding dental, vision and hearing benefits under Medicare; and paying for part of it with legislation to cut federal government outlays for prescription drugs.

Rank-and-file Democrats were clearly getting restless with the pace of talks, however.

“At some point, you got to fish or cut bait,” Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell said after the Tuesday morning meeting. “So these are healthy discussions; it’s always good when you can bring people together. At some point, it’s going to work or not work, and that some point can’t be a year from now.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.