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Democrats moving forward with budget reconciliation for COVID-19 relief

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Washington — Congressional Democrats are preparing to move forward with a procedure that will allow them to pass coronavirus relief legislation without any Republican votes, in the event that lawmakers are unable to craft a bipartisan deal on a new round of federal aid.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Thursday that the House will bring a budget resolution to the floor next week, the first step in using the process of budget reconciliation to pass a bill. Republicans have expressed concerns about the price tag of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief proposal, meaning that the bill may not receive enough votes to advance in the Senate without using reconciliation.

“I hope we don’t need it, but if needed we will have it,” Pelosi told reporters on Thursday about the option of using budget reconciliation, a maneuver that can be used to pass the bill with a simple majority in the Senate. “We want it to be bipartisan always, but we can’t surrender.”

NANCY PELOSI
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks during her weekly news conference in the Capitol in Washington on Thursday, January 28, 2021.

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday that the upper chamber would “begin the process of considering a very strong COVID relief bill” next week.

“Our preference is to make this important work bipartisan, to include input, ideas, and revisions from our Republican colleagues or bipartisan efforts to do the same. But if our Republican colleagues decide to oppose this urgent and necessary legislation, we will have to move forward without them,” Schumer said. The White House has signaled that it is unwilling to split the proposal into smaller bills, placing its hopes on reaching a deal on a larger package.

Democrats have a slim majority of 50 seats in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting any tie-breaking vote, and most legislation requires 60 votes in the Senate to end debate. Unless Democrats get support from 10 Republicans, the proposal would not move forward. The White House is in talks with a bipartisan group of 16 senators to formulate a deal, but even if all eight Republicans in that coalition agreed to vote for the bill, Democrats would still need two more Republican votes to reach the 60-vote threshold.

Budget reconciliation expedites procedures in the House and Senate and allows for certain types of legislation to advance with only a simple majority, meaning that Democrats would not need any Republican votes to pass the bill.

“I certainly hope we have a bipartisan approach but we need a substantial approach. We need it on a timely basis and I hope they’ll join us in that effort,” Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, one of the members of the bipartisan group speaking with the White House, said on Thursday. He also said that Mr. Biden has been calling Republican senators, saying there has been “direct personal outreach by the president to these Republicans in the hopes that we can do this on a bipartisan basis.”

Durbin cautioned there is a “very real possibility” that Congress may move forward with the budget reconciliation process if they are unable to reach a deal soon. But passing the relief proposal through budget reconciliation could undermine Mr. Biden’s message that he wanted to work with Republicans on a bipartisan basis upon entering office, and sow mistrust among Republicans against the administration.

There is a catch to using budget reconciliation — the legislation could be subject to what is known colloquially as the “Byrd rule,” which limits the provisions that can be included. The rule, named for the late Senator Robert Byrd, prohibits “extraneous” provisions in reconciliation, so that only items affecting federal budgetary spending are included. Some of the provisions in Mr. Biden’s proposal, such as raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and implementing paid family leave, may not qualify for inclusion under the Byrd rule.

Republican Senator John Cornyn warned that breaking the Byrd rule to allow for the passage of a $15 minimum wage “would destroy the Senate as an institution just as bad as eliminating the filibuster.” Eliminating the legislative filibuster, a move supported by progressives in Congress, would allow all legislation to pass by a simple majority.

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