Democrats eye arcane legislative tool to pass parts of Covid relief bill

Senate Democrats are laying the groundwork now to use a rare procedural tactic known as reconciliation to pass major parts of President Joe Biden’s Covid-19 relief package if Republicans stand in the way, according to multiple Democratic aides.

While leadership has yet to give the go ahead publicly and negotiations with Republicans are still getting started, aides tell CNN that the process is complicated and arcane, which is why they are getting ready now in case they have to use it.

“You just can’t do this overnight,” one Democratic Senate aide said referring to why the process is already starting.

And more directly, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told donors on a Zoom call Thursday that she wanted to pass the Covid relief bill in two weeks using budget reconciliation, a source familiar told CNN.

While the Biden administration’s first goal is to pass its nearly $2 trillion plan with bipartisan support through the regular Senate process, the odds are long for winning over enough Republicans to pass another massive stimulus bill just months after a more than $900 billion package passed the Senate in December. Already, many Republicans have signaled they think the package is too expensive or even unnecessary at this point.

“We just passed $900 billion worth of assistance why we would have a package that big now? Maybe a couple of months from now,” Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, said. “The needs will be evident, and we will need to do something significant. But I’m not seeing it right now.”

For their part, the Biden administration has started to meet with Republicans they’ve identified as potentially supporting the package in an effort to build support.

“I had a pretty good walkthrough of their Covid proposal,” Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who is up for reelection in 2022, told reporters earlier this week. “It was an opportunity for me to ask some questions.”

But behind the scenes, lawmakers recognize time is of the essence and are preparing to work through reconciliation if they have to. Chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committee have not been shy about talking publicly about their plans.

“The caucus would prefer this be done on a bipartisan basis. We haven’t made a decision yet to use reconciliation, but we are prepared to move very quickly if it looks like we can’t do it any other way,” Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat from Kentucky and the chairman of the House’s Budget Committee, said Thursday.

Hours later, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, told NBC’s Seth Meyers that the first goal was to try to reach out to Republicans, but he argued they couldn’t wait for them to come along.

“I think we should reach out to Republicans if they choose not to come on board, which I suspect will probably be the case … we should use that majority in a very aggressive way,” Sanders said. “It is my view we should make sure that we address the needs of the American people in that reconciliation bill, and if we pass it with 51 votes, we’ll pass it with 51 votes.

The first step would be to pass a budget bill through committee to essentially unlock the process. Once that was finished, the Senate Democrats could rework Biden’s bill so it fit into a very specific framework of what is allowed under the process. Reconciliation requires that anything passed has a real impact on the budget and not just an “incidental” one. The process also requires that proposals have no impact on social security and that the impacts on the budget do not stretch beyond a 10-year window if the changes are permanent. Because the process requires jumping through so many hoops and consultation with the Senate’s parliamentarian, committee staff have been working for weeks now to make sure they understand and are ready for the process in case it has to be used.

“There’s not much room for error,” another Democratic aide said noting that the committees will have to go point by point through Bidens proposal to see what can fit in reconciliation.

Republicans used the reconciliation process when they attempted to repeal and replace Obamacare in 2017 in the Senate. The GOP successfully used the process months later to overhaul the country’s tax code, which passed with just Republican votes.

The conversations about reconciliation have been reinvigorated in recent days as Democrats have grown frustrated by the stalled negotiations to organize the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has dug in and insisted that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer agree to preserve the filibuster for the next two years. The filibuster protects the minority party in the Senate by requiring that legislation meet a 60-vote procedural threshold before passing. Schumer has argued that policy has never been part of an organizing resolution before, but the issue has delayed the process of setting up committees and passing Biden’s nominees.

There are still questions about what parts of Biden’s Covid relief package would be allowed to advance under reconciliation. Some aides have identified that items like the $15 minimum wage could struggle to meet the criteria.