Senate Republicans don’t want to spend the $1.9 trillion on COVID relief that the Biden administration is proposing. None of them. Not Susan Collins, not Lisa Murkowski, not the eight other Republicans to their right that Democrats would need to get 60 votes. They don’t think it’s necessary. Most Senate Republicans haven’t thought broad COVID relief was necessary since last spring. Mitch McConnell had to drag the conference into spending $900 billion at the end of 2020 in advance of the Georgia runoffs. Now they’re done.
Given that reality, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are teeing up the budget reconciliation process, which would allow the Senate to pass the $1.9 trillion legislation by majority, without threat of a filibuster. That does not mean that the talks between a bipartisan working group and the Biden administration are completely dead; Democratic leaders insist that all they’re doing is preparing a backup option in case those talks collapse. But enhanced unemployment benefits expire in mid-March, and they’re determined to reach their legislative goal by that effective deadline by hook or by crook. The House and the Senate will consider budget resolutions, the first step in the reconciliation process, next week.
Senate Republicans are treating Democrats’ business decision as a deep betrayal to Joe Biden’s inaugural call for “unity.”
“That’s going to send a signal to America, and to Republicans throughout Congress, that this president’s message of unity was rhetoric as opposed to substance,” Indiana Sen. Todd Young, a member of the bipartisan working group, said of Democrats’ decision to set up reconciliation.
“Here we have an action that is contradictory to that very pledge,” retiring Ohio Sen. Rob Portman said.
Republicans in the group, as the No. 2 Republican senator, John Thune, told Politico, “felt a little bit betrayed by the representations that they were getting about the Democrats’ intentions.”
The Republican howls that Biden and Democrats are poisoning the well by moving so quickly to reconciliation are more than a bit theatrical. On the late evening of Jan. 11, 2017—nine days before President Donald Trump was sworn in—I was covering the Senate as 51 Republicans, including Young, Portman, Thune, Collins, and Murkowski, voted for a budget resolution to kickstart the process of repealing Obamacare by reconciliation. That one didn’t work out so well for Republicans, but later that year they would pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act through reconciliation. They had an agenda, they had the votes, and so they did it.
If they’re forced to choose between honoring Biden’s call for bipartisanship and honoring Biden’s call for delivering more COVID funds to the public, Democrats aren’t particularly concerned about the political damage stemming from Republicans calling them mean for opening a second, partisan legislative track. “I can guarantee you, no one back home cares,” Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz told HuffPost Thursday. “They just want their relief.”
But there were more practical reasons for attempting the bipartisan path first until it was clear the two sides had little common ground. While reconciliation and its promise of a filibuster-free means of passing legislation sounds like tremendous fun, it’s a complete pain.
If you ignore the rather un-ignorable obstacle of the filibuster, a bipartisan deal on a relief bill could theoretically move as quickly as it can be drafted. Reconciliation, though, has to jump through time-consuming procedural hoops. First, the budget committees in each chamber have to negotiate and agree on a budget resolution. Then each chamber has to vote on the budget resolution itself.
This process is politically fraught in the Senate. Budget resolutions are open to any and all amendments when they’re debated on the floor. Majority leaders try to get through this process by keeping the chamber in session until the opposition is too exhausted to continue any further. This process has become known as a “vote-a-rama.” During the vote-a-rama, Republicans will force agonizing votes on moderate Democratic senators, like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and try to create all the politically damaging material they need against vulnerable senators up for reelection in 2022, like Raphael Warnock and Mark Kelly, until they pass out. It will be an extraordinary test of brand-new Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s abilities to keep his conference together as Republicans release a barrage of attempts to break them apart.
Once Democrats are through with that, they will have to write a major piece of legislation that 50 out of 50 Democrats can support. Each senator, in other words, will have an effective veto, with Bernie Sanders pulling one way and Manchin the other. The product will have to go through an inspection from the Senate parliamentarian, too, to see that all of its components are within the constraints of reconciliation—specifically, that the legislation strictly covers taxing and spending policy.
Some Republicans are already musing that Democrats will tear themselves apart so spectacularly in this process that they may even have to come back to the well and beg for Republican votes. It’s unlikely to come to that. Democrats know that once they turn to reconciliation to achieve the central piece of Biden’s legislative agenda, they’re not allowed to fail—and they shouldn’t, since the big idea here is to divvy up money. But the timing, procedural hoops, rules constraints, and nonexistent margin for error will make this a cumbersome process, and mid-March an ambitious deadline.