Skip to content

Democrats kick off budget process for filibuster-proof virus aid

Effort would enable passage of COVID-19 package with simple majorities in both chambers

“The only thing we cannot accept is a package that is too small or too narrow to pull our country out of this emergency,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer says.
“The only thing we cannot accept is a package that is too small or too narrow to pull our country out of this emergency,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer says. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Not waiting for nascent bipartisan discussions to bear fruit, Democratic leaders on Monday formally kicked off efforts to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package with simple majorities in both chambers.

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth of Kentucky introduced a bare-bones fiscal blueprint that includes reconciliation instructions directing 12 House committees to write the bill by Feb. 16. 

At that point, the reconciliation bill’s contents would be sent to the Budget committees to package up for floor action the following week, a process that’s likely to start in the House and may skip Senate markups altogether, given that chamber’s 50-50 split.

The House budget resolution is expected to go to the Rules Committee on Tuesday and to the floor Wednesday. The Senate is taking up a mostly identical version that incoming Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders of Vermont will introduce, and could begin with a motion to proceed as early as Tuesday.

Eleven Senate committees are expected to get their own reconciliation instructions in the version Sanders will introduce. But that’s largely a formality since markups aren’t expected in that chamber.

Democrats in both chambers have been closely coordinating throughout the process, and people familiar with the discussions say House and Senate committees are likely to already have substantial advance agreement on the package before it reaches the floor.

The Senate’s “vote-a-rama” later this week could result in additional changes to the House-adopted budget, which would have to go back to the House for another vote, possibly over the weekend. 

Tight timetable

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate want to get a bill to President Joe Biden’s desk before enhanced unemployment benefits start to lapse ahead of their March 14 expiration date.

In a joint statement announcing the budget blueprint, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said the proposal would direct committees to draft relief measures “including, but not limited to” items outlined in Biden’s aid plan, such as $1,400 checks to individuals, $400 per week in enhanced unemployment benefits and $350 billion for state and local governments. 

Pelosi and Schumer also mentioned some items not specifically outlined in Biden’s relief plan, such as a dedicated grant program for restaurants and aid for museums, theaters and other live entertainment venues. They also mentioned more money for Amtrak and airlines, broadband and distance learning.

“There is nothing in this process — the budget resolution or reconciliation — that precludes our work from being bipartisan,” Schumer said in floor remarks. “The only thing we cannot accept is a package that is too small or too narrow to pull our country out of this emergency.”

A summary of the proposal from House Democrats notes that some of the dozen committees have overlapping jurisdiction over certain programs, therefore the total reconciled amounts add up to more than $1.9 trillion. But the final version won’t go above that figure, Democrats said.

The biggest piece will go through Ways and Means next week, with an instruction to hit a target of no more than $940.7 billion. Ways and Means has jurisdiction over all of the tax code provisions as well as unemployment insurance and some health care programs. Education and Labor gets a $357.1 billion target; Oversight and Reform, $350.7 billion; and Energy and Commerce, $188.5 billion, to round out the top four.

House Homeland Security had been expected to get a reconciliation instruction, but the version introduced Monday leaves that panel out. 

House and Senate Democrats have coordinated to try to write and pass legislation based on Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan as quickly as possible. 

Legislation that moves under the budget reconciliation process can pass the Senate with a simple majority instead of the usual 60 votes. The legislation has to have an effect on spending, revenue or the debt limit to qualify for reconciliation.

House Democrats began whipping members to support the budget resolution before it was unveiled Monday. In urging his own members to oppose the blueprint, House GOP whip Steve Scalise said the budget resolution “will set the stage to jam through a partisan COVID relief bill costing nearly $2 trillion and a liberal wish list of provisions unrelated to the ongoing pandemic.”

The Louisiana Republican charged that several provisions in the Biden plan would violate the Byrd rule, named for former Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., in the Senate, including “increasing the minimum wage and paid leave.” He added that “Democrats are positioning to break the Byrd Rule to force major liberal policies through using reconciliation.”

Many budget analysts are skeptical a federal minimum wage increase or an employer mandate to provide paid leave could make it by the Byrd rule, which bars extraneous provisions from being included in reconciliations bills.

But a few notable budget experts, including Bill Dauster, a former top Senate Democratic aide, argue the minimum wage could pass muster because it could reasonably be expected to have a broad budgetary impact.

Bipartisan meeting

Even as Democrats were rolling out their fast-track strategy, a group of 10 Senate Republicans floated what they viewed as a compromise $618 billion plan that accounts for areas of greatest need while acknowledging that money from previous relief packages is still sitting unspent.

Members of the group went to the White House later on Monday to discuss the measure with Biden. The meeting lasted for nearly two hours but didn’t result in any breakthroughs.

“I wouldn’t say that we came together on a package tonight. No one expected that in a two-hour meeting,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told reporters, adding that discussions would continue.

The president and other administration officials have said they welcome bipartisan discussions but have shown little willingness to negotiate down from their $1.9 trillion figure or compromise on major tenets of their plan.

Biden tweeted on Monday that he was “calling on Congress to immediately pass” his plan, which he said will “deliver direct relief, extend unemployment insurance, help folks put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads, and more.”

There were also signs that moderate Democrats were ready to back the higher price tag. Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb, who won by about 2 points last year in a suburban Pittsburgh district that had backed former President Donald Trump by 3 points four years earlier, tweeted Monday that Biden’s plan was better for his constituents.

Lamb noted that direct payments to individuals were more generous to median earners in his district, because in the GOP plan the payments per individual are $400 smaller and also cut off above $50,000 in income for single filers. He also pointed to increased child tax credits and boosted unemployment benefits, as well as protections against evictions or foreclosure.

“A lot of people have lost jobs or had hours cut through no fault of their own. No one knows for sure how long that will last,” Lamb tweeted. “Keeping these people afloat & in their own homes isn’t ‘too expensive’— it’s a necessary wartime measure in the battle against COVID.”

And in another potentially positive sign for Democrats, West Virginia’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, might have given his state’s Democratic senator, Joe Manchin III, some cover to vote with his party on the $1.9 trillion package.

“I have got to tell you there’s a tremendous difference between … $1.9 trillion and $600 billion,” Justice said. “I don’t think that America can go wrong being too high, I really don’t. I think today America’s got to go to the higher number.”

Given Democrats’ slim Senate majority with Vice President Kamala Harris the tiebreaker in the 50-50 chamber, party leaders can’t afford to lose Manchin’s vote. He hasn’t yet said how he’ll vote on the budget blueprint, though Manchin told reporters last week that “we want Joe Biden to be successful.”

Jennifer Shutt and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.