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Past budget fights hold lessons for Democrats

Reconciliation, which lets lawmakers circumvent the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster threshold, could be in play

Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer, right, and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell have yet to work out an organizing resolution, but there is speculation they may end up agreeing to an equal division on committees as in 2001.
Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer, right, and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell have yet to work out an organizing resolution, but there is speculation they may end up agreeing to an equal division on committees as in 2001. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The incoming Biden administration and Democrats on both sides of the Capitol face the same challenge Republicans did in early 2001 — how to use the budget process to enact their agenda with the slimmest of margins.

At the same point two decades ago, George W. Bush had been elected to his first term and came into office with 221 House Republicans and a 50-50 Senate split, making Vice President Dick Cheney the tiebreaker. 

“It’s almost a mirror image of where we are today,” said G. William Hoagland, who was the Senate Budget Committee’s GOP staff director in 2001 when his party narrowly controlled the chamber.

Hoagland, now with the Bipartisan Policy Center, spoke at a Monday event describing the ins and outs of budget reconciliation, a uniquely powerful tool that lets lawmakers circumvent the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster threshold.

But the procedure has substantial limitations and can be time-consuming, something Democrats are going to have to weigh carefully as they consider their legislative options for big-ticket items like another major coronavirus relief package, infrastructure, health care and tax bills.

President-elect Joe Biden on Thursday plans to outline what he says will be a COVID-19 aid proposal with a price tag “in the trillions of dollars.” Since getting 60 Senate votes seems like a tall order at this stage, the option to use reconciliation is out there.

A model for swift action on that measure came in early 2017, when Republicans and the Trump administration used the procedure for their “repeal and replace” effort for the 2010 health care law.

It took all of 10 days in January 2017 to introduce and adopt a “shell” budget resolution containing reconciliation instructions for the committees with jurisdiction over health care to use to draft their bills. Republicans weren’t able to follow through and pass their health care bill, but Democrats could use the same process.

But a former senior Democratic aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it could take a lot longer in the current environment for Democrats to get the budget process moving.

Given delays related to the Georgia runoffs and getting the two new Democratic senators sworn in and the fact that the Senate still hasn’t organized for the 117th Congress, it could be mid-February before a fiscal 2021 budget is adopted. That could push back a final reconciliation bill until late February or early March, which may be a lot later than Democrats promising quick action would like.

Then there are various other problems with including pandemic relief in reconciliation, such as how to handle discretionary funds under the purview of appropriators, which have made up large pieces of prior COVID-19 aid bills.

[Rules of the last 50-50 Senate might not bind this one]

Thinking ahead

Democrats will have to fine-tune their reconciliation instructions in a way that Republicans in 2017 did not, the former Democratic aide said. The GOP reconciliation directive to repeal the health care law simply called for authorizing committees to write legislation reducing the deficit by at least $1 billion over 10 years. That instruction provided great flexibility in writing the reconciliation bill.

“If Democrats are going to be using reconciliation for a piece of legislation that increases spending and is not offset, it is critically important that you put a lot of forethought into what exactly do we want to spend money on, to which committees do I need to reconcile that instruction, and what is the topline number that we’re trying to get at,” the former Democratic staffer said. “You really need to know going in what you are trying to accomplish because once that’s locked in a budget resolution by a reconciliation instruction … you’re really limited.”

There’s also the issue of how to get a budget to the floor if committees won’t cooperate.

In 2001, Senate Republican leader Trent Lott and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle agreed to an organizing resolution under which the Senate Budget Committee was divided 11-11.

Without either party having a majority on the panel, the stage was set for considerable difficulty in agreeing to a budget resolution, which Republicans at the time wanted to use in order to pass what became the first of the big tax cuts enacted under Bush in May 2001. 

Republicans avoided the complication by skipping the Senate Budget Committee, Hoagland recalled. The House adopted a fiscal 2002 budget resolution and sent it to the Senate. Instead of being assigned to the Senate Budget Committee, the measure went straight to the floor where Cheney could break a tie vote if necessary.

The same principle could potentially be applied to a reconciliation bill itself. In 2017, the House-passed GOP health care bill went straight to the Senate floor, where Republican leaders in consultation with a group of senators drafted what became a series of unsuccessful amendments.

In other cases, including with the tax reconciliation bill later that year, the typical process has been for House and Senate panels to report their pieces of reconciliation to the Budget panels, which then bring the combined bills to the floor in each chamber.

Incoming Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell have yet to work out an organizing resolution, but there is speculation they may end up agreeing to an equal division on committees as in 2001.

During a separate Bipartisan Policy Center discussion between Daschle and Lott on Monday, Daschle said he hopes Schumer agrees to an even division of members on committees and Senate resources as Lott did when he was majority leader in 2001.

“I’m hopeful that Democrats can demonstrate that same degree of courage and that same degree of comity as we work through these very challenging issues this time,” he said.

Daschle added that the “lay of the land” now is similar to what it was in 2001, when congressional leaders wanted to avoid another constitutional crisis after Bush’s disputed election and the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

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