And possibly not ever, depending how serious you think Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema were when they announced this week that they would oppose any effort to blow up their chamber's antiquated, obviously destructive 60-vote threshold. Practically speaking, this means that if Democrats want to enact most of their agenda, they will have to rely on the somewhat byzantine and widely misunderstood process known as budget reconciliation, which prevents filibusters on certain kinds of legislation. Party leaders have already signaled that they will use it to move President Joe Biden's big coronavirus relief package if enough Republicans can't be convinced to back it, as well as infrastructure and climate legislation. Democrats are also looking for creative ways to stretch reconciliation's rules in order to pass priorities like a $15 minimum wage. Given that the fate of the Biden presidency likely hangs on the ins and outs of this parliamentary procedure (which, to be clear, is objectively absurd), you probably have a few questions about how reconciliation works. Here, as briefly as possible, is what you need to know.
Get used to the following term "budget reconciliation." This is the special parliamentary process President Biden and congressional Democrats plan to use to advance the next coronavirus relief package. It will likely take a few weeks just to move such a COVID-19 measure. But, an understanding of the process may shed light on the policy – and the political realities of Capitol Hill. President Biden and Democrats in Congress have long memories about how Republicans responded to big legislative initiatives 12 years ago. The country reeled after the financial crisis.
After an all-night vote-a-rama on Wednesday, the Senate today took its first real legislative tugs at unraveling the Affordable Care Act--the healthcare law that currently provides insurance to more than 20 million people who didn't have it before. Passing early this morning with a vote of 51 to 48, the budget resolution is the opening move in a three-part process to repeal and replace Obamacare. It is not, as some congressional Republicans would lead you to believe, now a done deal. A full-blown repeal is still far from over, with many opportunities to fizzle out or get derailed in the process. But with Republicans using a budgetary loophole to finally get the repeal they've always wanted, it can be hard to know exactly where things stand.
Senate Republicans don't want to spend the $1.9 trillion on COVID relief that the Biden administration is proposing. 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.
The conventional wisdom around budget reconciliation, the filibuster-free process through which the Senate can pass budget-related legislation with 50 votes, is that you only get one per fiscal year--for a maximum of two per calendar year. The Senate Democratic majority already spent its reconciliation bill for fiscal year 2021 on the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, and the idea has been that they could use a second one, pegged to the arrival of fiscal 2022 this coming October, on some kind of jam-packed infrastructure, care-economy, health care, and who-knows-what-else all-purpose bill. Since they don't have the votes to eliminate the filibuster altogether, these two bills would be their two big opportunities to enact their legislative agenda. Last week, however, Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer asked the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, who advises on the chamber's arcane rules, to examine another section of the budget law that allows for the reconciliation process. Section 304 of the 1974 Budget Act allows the Senate pass a resolution that "revises" the budget they've already passed.