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Democrats begin laying groundwork for big budget plans

More pandemic aid, infrastructure package jump to forefront

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., with OMB nominee Neera Tanden on right, protested the GOP tax cut bill in 2017.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., with OMB nominee Neera Tanden on right, protested the GOP tax cut bill in 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democratic leaders began outlining a bold agenda for the coming year Wednesday as they prepared for their party’s takeover of the Senate.

The Democratic victory in two Georgia Senate runoff elections means that Democrats will hold 50 Senate seats to start the 117th Congress. That would be enough to claim a majority in the 100-seat chamber with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting any tie-breaking votes.

Party leaders began claiming victory on Wednesday even before the Associated Press officially called the second race for Democrat Jon Ossoff, who defeated Republican Sen. David Perdue. The AP declared Democrat Raphael G. Warnock the winner in his contest against GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

[Jon Ossoff defeats David Perdue in Georgia, tipping Senate control]

“Georgia’s voters delivered a resounding message yesterday: they want action on the crises we face and they want it right now,” President-elect Joe Biden said in a statement Wednesday morning. “On COVID-19, on economic relief, on climate, on racial justice, on voting rights and so much more.”

Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer immediately called for reviving an effort to provide $2,000 tax rebate checks. A pandemic relief package enacted last month provided checks of up to $600 per individual, but President Donald Trump and many Democrats had sought to increase the amount to $2,000.

“One of the first things that I want to do when our new senators are seated is deliver the $2,000 checks to the American families,” Schumer told reporters. He declined to say whether he envisioned passing separate legislation on the checks, as the House did last month, or including it in a broader package.

[McConnell blocks Democrats’ attempts to boost relief checks to $2,000]

That effort alone comes with a hefty price tag. A House-passed bill from late last year, which would boost the size of the checks to $2,000 per adult as well as each dependent, would cost $463.8 billion, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. That’s more than half the entire cost of the COVID-19 aid measure Trump signed into law last month.

Reconciliation returns

Democrats also made clear they intend to pass sweeping legislation through a procedure that avoids the risk of a Senate filibuster. The procedural tool, known as reconciliation, allows legislation to pass with a simple majority vote as long as it has a budgetary impact, among other restrictions.

“All options are on the table as we consider the best way to address the crises at hand and lead our nation forward,” House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said in a statement. “That includes potentially using reconciliation to advance critical priorities for American families.”

Both parties have relied on reconciliation to skirt the 60-vote threshold that is otherwise required in the Senate to advance legislation. Democrats used the procedure in 2010 to pass big chunks of the Obama administration’s signature health care law, and Republicans used it for the 2017 tax overhaul.

Several Democratic senators began contemplating life as incoming committee chairmen. “All those people who got sweetheart deals over the last four years should understand there’s a new sheriff,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who would become the next Finance Committee chairman in a Democratic majority.

“Obviously, reconciliation is something I’m going to be spending a lot of time on,” Wyden told reporters. “This of course gives us an opportunity to have a very different set of choices. and that’s what the election was all about in Georgia last night.”

While lawmakers stopped short of offering details, reconciliation could be used to advance a number of Biden’s key priorities, including infrastructure and clean energy spending, student debt relief, an expansion of the Obama-era health care law, tax increases on corporations and the wealthy, and more.

At the center of all those and other Democratic initiatives may be Neera Tanden, Biden’s pick to head the White House Office of Management and Budget. As OMB director, the onetime policy aide in the Obama and Clinton administrations would play a key role in shaping Biden’s domestic agenda.

[Biden tees up confirmation battle over budget chief selection]

In an address to business leaders Wednesday, Tanden outlined priorities that include climate change, infrastructure, broadband access, small-business assistance, housing aid and unemployment insurance. Tanden, who served most recently as president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, also talked up the need to address inequality.

She said the administration would “really leverage the resources of the federal government to redress those inequalities — income, racial, wealth inequalities and some of the inequalities we’ve seen where economic growth is going to particular areas and leaving a lot of places behind.”

Tanden’s confirmation had been in doubt under a Republican-controlled Senate because of her past criticism of several GOP senators. Among other taunts, she had once accused Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of having “broken the Senate” in his handling of Supreme Court nominations. But her confirmation would appear in stronger shape under a Democratic majority.

Goodbye to ‘Infrastructure Week’?

Tanden said she was most optimistic about the chances of passing a major infrastructure spending bill, an initiative that has floundered for years during the Trump administration, when it became a butt of jokes for backers’ repeated attempts to proclaim an Infrastructure Week.

“Of all the areas, I’m most optimistic that we will retire ‘Infrastructure Week’ because we will actually pass an infrastructure bill,” she said.

She also made clear that addressing global warming would be treated as an urgent concern: “The president-elect recognizes that addressing the climate change we’re seeing is an existential crisis and so it is a top priority for this administration. And so, investments and climate response is really the top of the OMB agenda.”

But for all the talk of sweeping legislation, Democrats may still need to work across party lines. A 50-50 Senate means the defection of just a single senator could sink a bill.

“Now, more than ever, we must enter a new era of bipartisanship in Washington,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a Democrat from a Republican-leaning state who’s expected to lead the Energy and Natural Resources panel. “With tight margins in the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans are faced with a decision to either work together to put the priorities of our nation before partisan politics or double down on the dysfunctional tribalism.”

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