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Yarmuth: House budget blueprint won’t veer too far from Senate’s

House Budget chairman says he and Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders want to skip the conference committee process

Rep. John Yarmuth speaks with reporters as he leaves the House Democrats caucus meeting on June 15.
Rep. John Yarmuth speaks with reporters as he leaves the House Democrats caucus meeting on June 15. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth said Democrats in his chamber may be zeroing in on a budget blueprint that would allow for more than $5 trillion in new spending over 10 years, and that ultimately he and his Senate counterpart are working on similar tracks that could avoid a time-consuming conference.

In an interview Tuesday night, Yarmuth, D-Ky., said his staff estimates that after the Congressional Budget Office scores the proposals in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure and family assistance packages, the cost could be more than $5 trillion, rather than the $4 trillion-plus outlined in the White House budget request. 

He said aides put the cost at $5 trillion “or a little bit over,” which puts his chamber “not very far apart, actually,” from what Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders has floated to Democrats in his chamber. Sanders, I-Vt., has pitched options adding up to about $6 trillion.

[Sanders budget plan would spend more, tax less than Biden]

Yarmuth said the difference ultimately could amount to Medicare expansion provisions that Sanders and others have proposed. “They want to add some things that I’m not sure we will over here,” he said. “That’s not my call. That’s leadership’s call.” 

Even so, Yarmuth said, “there will probably be some other items in the reconciliation package,” such as immigration provisions and prescription drug savings, though he again noted that the contents are ultimately up to leadership.

Sanders says as many as half of his proposals may not need to be offset, if they are considered “one-time” investments rather than ongoing programs. Yarmuth wouldn’t divulge whether his version would propose paying for more of the spending, but he said the deficit impact of the budget blueprint would likely be a factor in rounding up votes to adopt it in that chamber.

Agreement on a joint fiscal 2022 budget resolution in both chambers is a crucial first step in the reconciliation process, which leads to a filibuster-proof bill in the Senate. Yarmuth said he and Sanders share a goal of avoiding a conference committee process to eliminate differences between each chamber’s blueprint.

“Bernie and I have talked, and we’re trying to track as best we can because we want to ultimately not have to conference this thing,” Yarmuth said. “If we can track them closely enough, then we do what we did with the rescue plan,” he said, referring to the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief reconciliation bill enacted in March. “The Senate passes a few changes, we come back and pass it. That’s the easiest.”

On Feb. 5, the Senate adopted its own budget blueprint with some minor changes from the House version on a 51-50 vote at 5:23 a.m. after an all-night “vote-a-rama,” with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie. The House then adopted a rule later in the day, by a vote of 219-209, that “deemed” the Senate budget resolution to have been adopted in that chamber as well.

Two-track process

The current plan is to mark up the House version of the budget resolution the week of July 12 and go to the floor the following week, Yarmuth said. That timeline is similar to what Sanders and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer have discussed.

Some Hill aides think it may take longer for Democrats to build support for the budget resolution in the 50-50 Senate. If that’s the case, they say, it’s possible the budget resolution could be delayed in the House as well.

A bipartisan Senate group is still working out a potential infrastructure agreement that could remove some items from the budget reconciliation talks. White House aides and Democratic leaders are set for high-level discussions starting Wednesday about how to possibly “dual-track” a bipartisan package and budget reconciliation. Many rank-and-file Democrats are demanding that action on the two be linked as the price of their votes on any bipartisan plan they view as insufficient.

Yarmuth said final action on a reconciliation package might slip into October since September is a short month, with no House votes scheduled until Sept. 20. The focus for those last two weeks of the month is likely to be fiscal 2022 appropriations and avoiding a partial government shutdown when current-year funds lapse on Oct. 1, he said.

“I think we’re on target September or October. I’m not sure that we’re set on September,” Yarmuth said of the reconciliation timeline.

Lawmakers and staff would need to move fast to get the giant reconciliation package ready during the August break.

The House has “committee work weeks” scheduled starting the week of Aug. 30, running through Labor Day and up until the week of Sept. 20. Those sessions are cut a little short with time off for the Jewish holidays Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur during the weeks of Sept. 6 and Sept. 13, respectively. It’s conceivable that House committees could mark up their portions of the reconciliation sometime between the end of August and mid-September, but no decisions have been made.

Some timing decisions could be dictated by the need to raise the statutory debt ceiling. Estimates vary, from as early as August to well into October or even later, depending on when Treasury absolutely needs Congress to act to stave off default on U.S. financial obligations. Raising the debt limit as part of the reconciliation bill is one leading possibility and is allowed under budget rules.

“There has not been a decision made, as far as I know, as to how to handle the debt limit. It’s still under discussion,” Yarmuth said. He talked to Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen last week, and she was uncertain about when the deadline would be.

‘Nothing happens when we don’t’

Meanwhile, Yarmuth said he no longer expects much trouble getting the votes for the budget resolution in his chamber. At one point he said he expected a fight between progressives and moderates on defense vs. nondefense appropriations targets, but now he gets the sense there is unity on the need to get a budget adopted and move ahead with reconciliation.

“The very significant increase in nondefense makes it easy for progressives. And I’ve talked to a couple of the moderates who’ve said, ‛I’m going to vote for whatever it is, because nothing happens when we don’t,’” Yarmuth said.

Biden has proposed a nearly 17 percent boost for nondefense appropriations in fiscal 2022 and less than 2 percent more for defense. Yarmuth said concerns among progressives about providing any increase for defense would be muted by the fact that much of the boost would likely go toward military personnel costs, such as pay raises, rather than weapons programs.

“Everybody tells me to be very confident. I was more skeptical of our chances a couple of months ago, but everybody’s convinced me that we’ll be able to do it,” Yarmuth said. What’s changed, he said, is “the realization that we’re all in the same situation as the Senate, that we don’t have the luxury of holding out for an ideal budget.”

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