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Senate parliamentarian clears way for Democrats to use reconciliation for infrastructure bill

Biden defends infrastructure bill
Biden backs corporate tax hike to fund infrastructure 13:58

Washington — The Senate parliamentarian has advised that a revised budget resolution can include reconciliation instructions, opening a path for Democrats to pass spending legislation by a simple majority vote, an aide for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday. Budget reconciliation, a parliamentary procedure to bypass the two-thirds requirement for legislation, was used to pass President Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan without any Republican support.

The determination could be key for Democrats on top issues in a 50-50 Senate. Schumer's spokesman called the parliamentarian's determination an "important step forward that this key pathway is available to Democrats if needed."

"The Parliamentarian has advised that a revised budget resolution may contain budget reconciliation instructions. This confirms the Leader's interpretation of the Budget Act and allows Democrats additional tools to improve the lives of Americans if Republican obstruction continues," the spokesman said. "While no decisions have been made on a legislative path forward using Section 304 and some parameters still need to be worked out, the Parliamentarian's opinion is an important step forward that this key pathway is available to Democrats if needed." 

Although Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House, their hold on the Senate in particular is tenuous with a 50-seat majority. Most legislation requires 60 votes to advance in the Senate, and Democrats are unlikely to get Republican support for their more ambitious and expensive proposals. Absent of eliminating the filibuster, which would allow legislation to advance with a simple majority, Democrats have few options for passing their priorities without any Republican votes.

One such path is budget reconciliation, a procedural maneuver which allows for budget-related items to pass with a simple majority. Democrats used a budget resolution for the current fiscal year to lay the groundwork for passing the American Rescue Plan. Although typically budget reconciliation has been used only once per fiscal year, the ruling by the Senate parliamentarian will allow Democrats to use reconciliation as often as possible — paving the way for Democrats to use the reconciliation process for Mr. Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure bill.

Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough ruled that Section 304 of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 can allow for multiple reconciliation bills per fiscal year. The parliamentarian is an expert on the obscure procedures of the Senate, and determines whether certain actions are permitted under Senate rules.

MacDonough determined that Section 304 would allow for a second reconciliation process to be used this fiscal year, because it says "the two Houses may adopt a concurrent resolution on the budget which revises or reaffirms the concurrent resolution on the budget for such fiscal year most recently agreed to."

However, Democrats still face an uphill battle in passing the bill. Democratic moderate Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia told a radio host that he would oppose the 28% corporate tax hike the president is proposing to help pay for the bill. Manchin said he would leverage his power in the evenly divided Senate.

"If I don't vote to get on it, it's not going anywhere," Manchin insisted.  "As the bill exists today, it needs to be changed."  

Reconciliation is not an ideal end-run around the filibuster. It can only be used for budgetary bills, and the parliamentarian has the authority to strip any unrelated provisions. This occurred recently, when the parliamentarian ruled that a provision raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025 could not be included in the American Rescue Plan. 

Reconciliation is also a grueling process which includes two voting marathons in the Senate, during which any senator can force a roll-call vote on an amendment. Known as a "vote-a-rama," these voting sessions are often prolonged and require senators to be on the floor for hours at a time. The most recent "vote-a-rama," which occurred ahead of final Senate passage of the American Rescue Plan, extended overnight and lasted nearly 24 hours.

Other Democratic priorities, such as voting rights legislation, would not be able to pass through reconciliation because they are not budget-related. Frustrated progressives in the House and Senate argue that eliminating the filibuster would be the easiest way to pass controversial legislation, and wouldn't require such a painful process.

But eliminating the filibuster would require support from a simple majority of senators, and at least two Democratic senators have expressed unwillingness to end the practice. Manchin has been particularly vocal in his opposition to ending the filibuster, arguing that it is necessary to protect the rights of the minority.

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