First 100: Democrats reconcile themselves to reconciliation

January 29, 2021 The American Prospect

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The Chief

The fate of Joe Biden’s first and most important legislative priority looks like it will become an all-Democratic affair. After some discussions yesterday, Democrats are ready to take the first steps to use the budget reconciliation process to pass the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. That begins with passing a budget resolution through the House and Senate, which will happen as soon as Tuesday, a congressional source tells me.

Once the budget resolution for Fiscal Year 2021 passes through both houses of Congress, with specific reconciliation instructions, than a reconciliation bill can be readied. It does look like that reconciliation bill will be set at the $1.9 trillion level. As Lindsay Owens of Groundwork Collaborative explains, that means that any amendments that cost money will take the bill over that limit and force some bargaining over what to keep in or take out. There are some mitigating factors that I’ll explain in a separate post, but it would be better to write in some flexibility there.

That’s a minor issue, however. The big thing here is Democrats want to retain the size of the package and have the threat of going it alone available. They might put the full bill on the floor for Republicans to reject, but at that point, reconciliation will take over. In theory that forces Republicans to the table if they want to have any say over the bill. In practice I think it means that you just get a reconciliation package. But Democrats aren’t wasting their time on bipartisanship, which is a sea change.

It does not look like the bill will be split, at the White House’s request, meaning the checks and shots strategy is dead. It was my strategy, so of course I think this is a mistake. But it was going on a bad trajectory anyway. Republicans and some Democrats were looking to nickel and dime the checks, bringing eligibility down to individuals making under $50,000/year ($75,000 for couples). Even the vaccine money was said to be on the way to crushed down. A checks and shots strategy doesn’t mean little checks and fewer shots. It means daring Republicans to vote down popular bills that they have previously supported. So at this point, maybe reconciliation is the safer ground.

However, it’s a much more lengthy process. Once you get the budget resolution done, hopefully smoothly, you have to write the reconciliation package, and with Biden determined to give bipartisanship a chance you have to put the full bill to a vote to see what it can garner. Then reconciliation itself is a protracted process in the Senate, with a “vote-a-rama” that could lead to dozens if not hundreds of short votes (there could be as many as 1,000 amendments introduced). And after the amendment process you have to reconcile the reconciliation bill, meaning you have to make sure the Senate’s bill matches the House’s.

Through all of that, there are going to be negotiations, as literally every Senator will be in the position to make demands on the bill, not to mention every small group of House members given the narrow Democratic majority there. (Progressives are talking about recurring stimulus checks, for example, rather than another one-time check.) The sort-of deadline is when extended unemployment expires in mid-March. Obviously Democrats would like to pass something before then, but I don’t think that’s going to be all that possible.

The main cost of reconciliation is time. We need the vaccines out as fast as humanly possible, as we’re in a race with the more contagious variants. (Here’s Ezra Klein with more.) Delaying the money needed to really ramp up distribution is unconscionable. And this really puts out to dry the Georgia Senators who won Democrats back the majority. They finally spoke up yesterday, arguing that they made a distinct promise on the checks that needed to be honored quickly. Maybe March is good enough for them, but you can sense the discomfort.

If checks and shots hit the floor next week along with the budget resolution, in a way that forced Republicans to go on the record against very popular programs they themselves have said they support, that would be politically valuable whether Republicans block them or not. The policy value of passage is significant, especially on the vaccine side, where even red-state governors are begging for more support. Checks and shots appear dead, but the idea was never taken in the proper spirit anyway: make your opponent take a tough vote. Why else hold the majority?

Read on The American Prospect.