WASHINGTON — A top Senate official ruled Monday that Democrats could use the fast-track budget reconciliation process for a second time this fiscal year, potentially handing them broader power to push through President Joe Biden’s agenda, including his infrastructure plan, over Republican opposition.
The decision by the parliamentarian means that Democrats can essentially reopen the budget plan they passed in February and add directives to enact the infrastructure package or other initiatives, shielding them from a filibuster that requires 60 votes to overcome.
It came as Democratic leaders were contemplating how to use their slim majorities in the House and Senate to enact Biden’s infrastructure proposals, including a huge public-works plan he released last week and a second initiative to be released in the coming months to address economic inequities, provide paid leave to workers and support child care.
But the decision has potential significance beyond those plans, and even the current Congress. The guidance could substantially weaken the filibuster by allowing the majority party to use budget reconciliation — a powerful tool that allows measures related to taxes and spending to pass on a majority vote — multiple times in a single fiscal year. That would dilute the power of the minority to stall or block such legislation in the Senate, the latest bid by the party in power to chip away at the arcane filibuster rules.
It was not clear how Democrats would use their newfound power, or for what. But the preliminary guidance from Elizabeth MacDonough, the parliamentarian, most likely gives them additional opportunities to push elements of Biden’s agenda through the 50-50 Senate without abolishing the filibuster or watering down their proposals to win at least 10 Republican votes.
Democrats had already used budget reconciliation to push through Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus last month without any Republican votes. But with some Democrats reluctant to dismantle the filibuster, the rest of Biden’s agenda risks stalling amid Republican objections.
Seeking alternative avenues, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, had argued that the rules allowed the Senate to revisit the budget blueprint that allowed for passage of the pandemic relief plan and take at least one more crack at reconciliation before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
Because there was no precedent for doing so, he asked MacDonough, a nonpartisan civil servant who interprets Senate rules, for guidance. On Monday, she blessed the maneuver, according to Justin Goodman, a spokesman for Schumer, who said that “some parameters still need to be worked out.”
The ruling “allows Democrats additional tools to improve the lives of Americans if Republican obstruction continues,” Goodman said in a statement, calling the opinion “an important step forward” in ensuring that “this key pathway is available to Democrats if needed.”
Democrats already had two more opportunities to use the reconciliation process during the 117th Congress, under budget blueprints for fiscal years 2022 and 2023. But the ruling from MacDonough allows them to use the maneuver at least two more times during this calendar year alone, and could further increase the opportunities for them to do so before the end of 2022.
The option does not guarantee a smooth path for Biden’s agenda; with narrow majorities in both chambers, party leaders will have to keep Democrats almost entirely united to be able to use the maneuver successfully. And reconciliation is subject to strict budgetary rules that limit what can be included.
Top Democratic officials have declined to say when they will use the budget tool again. But lawmakers and aides have floated a number of possibilities, ranging from infrastructure to immigration, that could be steered around Republican objections and into law.
“It’s important because it gives us a little more flexibility — we don’t have to push everything into one package,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is chairman of the Budget Committee, said on MSNBC, listing a number of priorities he wanted to pass. “The ruling of the parliamentarian gives us a little bit more opportunity in that direction.”
Progressive lawmakers have increasingly agitated for a change to the rules of the Senate that would allow the party to dismantle the filibuster.
But any effort to pass further legislation with a simple majority will be considerably more difficult than it was with the stimulus package, which cleared both chambers and became law in less than three months. Democrats are already haggling over what should be included in the infrastructure plan, and how to pay for it.
Republicans, who have largely criticized Biden’s agenda, are likely to object to any use of the tool, which would virtually cut them out of the process. Reconciliation also consumes a substantial amount of floor time, which could otherwise be used for approving administration nominees and judicial appointments.
“There are more opportunities to run the obstacle course and risk all the dangers, but you still have to run the obstacle course,” said Zach Moller, deputy director of the economic program at Third Way, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, and a former aide on the Senate Budget Committee. “The process and the painfulness of budget reconciliation is still required to go through here.”
Several Democrats have said they hope for bipartisan support for their initiatives, including Biden’s infrastructure proposal. But taking a cue from the president, they have also begun to argue that they have support from Republican voters and local officials, even if Republican lawmakers in Washington have objected to the plan.
Some Republicans balked at Schumer’s parsing of budgetary law, saying it suggested that congressional Democrats had no genuine interest in negotiating the details of an infrastructure plan, let alone more politically charged issues like immigration reform.
“It should be subjected to extensive hearings in both the House and the Senate, and not rammed through,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said of the infrastructure package in an interview last week. But the attempt to expand the use of reconciliation, she said, “seems to signal what direction they want to go in.”