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Democrats moving forward with budget reconciliation for COVID-19 relief

Congressman on finding common ground
Congressman on finding common ground 09:25

Washington — Congressional Democrats are preparing to move forward with a procedure that will allow them to pass coronavirus relief legislation without any Republican votes, in the event that lawmakers are unable to craft a bipartisan deal on a new round of federal aid.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Thursday that the House will bring a budget resolution to the floor next week, the first step in using the process of budget reconciliation to pass a bill. Republicans have expressed concerns about the price tag of President Biden's $1.9 trillion relief proposal, meaning that the bill may not receive enough votes to advance in the Senate without using reconciliation.

"I hope we don't need it, but if needed we will have it," Pelosi told reporters on Thursday about the option of using budget reconciliation, a maneuver that can be used to pass the bill with a simple majority in the Senate. "We want it to be bipartisan always, but we can't surrender."

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks during her weekly news conference in the Capitol in Washington on Thursday, January 28, 2021. Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday that the upper chamber would "begin the process of considering a very strong COVID relief bill" next week.

"Our preference is to make this important work bipartisan, to include input, ideas, and revisions from our Republican colleagues or bipartisan efforts to do the same. But if our Republican colleagues decide to oppose this urgent and necessary legislation, we will have to move forward without them," Schumer said. The White House has signaled that it is unwilling to split the proposal into smaller bills, placing its hopes on reaching a deal on a larger package.

Democrats have a slim majority of 50 seats in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting any tie-breaking vote, and most legislation requires 60 votes in the Senate to end debate. Unless Democrats get support from 10 Republicans, the proposal would not move forward. The White House is in talks with a bipartisan group of 16 senators to formulate a deal, but even if all eight Republicans in that coalition agreed to vote for the bill, Democrats would still need two more Republican votes to reach the 60-vote threshold.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, told reporters earlier this week that Democrats are working on writing a budget resolution, which could be introduced as early as next week.

"Everybody wants to work on a bipartisan way, we hope Republicans will come on board. But the fact is that this country today faces more unprecedented crisis in terms of the pandemic," Sanders told reporters on Wednesday. "We have a problem, the American people are hurting, and we've got to respond rapidly. I hope my Republican colleagues come on board. But if not we're going forward."

Budget reconciliation expedites procedures in the House and Senate and allows for certain types of legislation to advance with only a simple majority, meaning that Democrats would not need any Republican votes to pass the bill.

"I certainly hope we have a bipartisan approach but we need a substantial approach. We need it on a timely basis and I hope they'll join us in that effort," Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, one of the members of the bipartisan group speaking with the White House, said on Thursday. He also said that Mr. Biden has been calling Republican senators, saying there has been "direct personal outreach by the president to these Republicans in the hopes that we can do this on a bipartisan basis." 

Durbin cautioned there is a "very real possibility" that Congress may move forward with the budget reconciliation process if they are unable to reach a deal soon. But passing the relief proposal through budget reconciliation could undermine Mr. Biden's message that he wanted to work with Republicans on a bipartisan basis upon entering office, and sow mistrust among Republicans against the administration.

"That's going to send a signal to America, and to Republicans throughout Congress, that this president's message of unity was rhetoric as opposed to substance," Republican Senator Todd Young told reporters on Thursday about the possibility of passing the proposal through budget reconciliation.

Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a member of the bipartisan group of senators that met with top White House economic aide Brian Deese on Sunday to discuss the relief package, has become increasingly concerned with the Biden administration's approach to working with Republicans on the measure.

"It's good to talk about bipartisanship, but it's much better to actually do it," Portman told reporters on Tuesday. "If the House decides to go ahead with the reconciliation approach, which is a way to get around working with Republicans, I think that would be not just a big mistake at this stage at the start of this administration, but irresponsible given what's happened with the COVID-19 package."

There is a catch to using budget reconciliation — the legislation could be subject to what is known colloquially as the "Byrd rule," which limits the provisions that can be included. The rule, named for the late Senator Robert Byrd, prohibits "extraneous" provisions in reconciliation, so that only items affecting federal budgetary spending are included. Some of the provisions in Mr. Biden's proposal, such as raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and implementing paid family leave, may not qualify for inclusion under the Byrd rule.

Republican Senator John Cornyn warned that breaking the Byrd rule to allow for the passage of a $15 minimum wage "would destroy the Senate as an institution just as bad as eliminating the filibuster." Eliminating the legislative filibuster, a move supported by progressives in Congress, would allow all legislation to pass by a simple majority.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday reiterated calls that President Biden still wants the COVID-19 relief package to be bipartisan, as congressional Democrats look to using the procedural method as a vehicle to pass a COVID-19 relief package with a simple majority vote. But she said Republicans can join in through reconciliation, even as Republicans object to key components of the proposal. 

"Republicans can still vote for a package" if it goes through reconciliation, Psaki said.

Asked if Mr. Biden will sign a bill that has no Republican support, Psaki responded, Well we're not quite there, that's getting us a few steps ahead of where we are now." 

Top Biden administration officials held a call with Senate Democrats Thursday afternoon and answered questions that were "all about policy," one participant on the call said. 

There were "no discussions of the breakout," that is, the idea of breaking the legislation into separate parts, this participant said. 

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said the phone call was "excellent," adding that the COVID-19 relief package should not be split.

"We have to do it all together. It all fits together," Blumenthal said. "I have, I have zero tolerance for delay. I have no patience for wasting time, we need to do it all together. I think that's the general feeling in the caucus."

The White House threw cold water on the idea of splitting a package Thursday. 

"We're not looking to split that package. That is not a proposal from the White House," Psaki said. 

Ed O'Keefe, Jack Turman and Kathryn Watson contributed reporting.

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