Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough probably shouldn’t have this kind of power. But someone has to set the rules and interpret them, and the unelected MacDonough happens to hold her position at a crucial time in history.
MacDonough has ruled that the budget reconciliation process can be used multiple times in a fiscal year (October 1 – September 30). The importance of that ruling can’t be understated; it gives the Democrats at least one more bite of the reconciliation apple, which will allow them to pass a bill by a simple majority. With nearly six months to go in the fiscal year, Democrats will use reconciliation to pass some version of Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill and even shoehorn passage of another money bill before year’s end.
The parliamentarian’s ruling is based on an obscure section of the Budget Act. Section 304 states that “the two Houses may adopt a concurrent resolution on the budget which revises or reaffirms the concurrent resolution on the budget for such fiscal year most recently agreed to.”
But the parliamentarian also has the ability to strip any provisions that don’t affect the budget. That’s what happened when MacDonough ruled the $15-an-hour minimum wage had to be taken out of the first $1.9 trillion stimulus bill.
It’s also true that reconciliation is a terrible way to make law.
Reconciliation is also a grueling process which includes two voting marathons in the Senate, during which any senator can force a roll-call vote on an amendment. Known as a “vote-a-rama,” these voting sessions are often prolonged and require senators to be on the floor for hours at a time. The most recent “vote-a-rama,” which occurred ahead of final Senate passage of the American Rescue Plan , extended overnight and lasted nearly 24 hours.
Other Democratic priorities, such as voting rights legislation, would not be able to pass through reconciliation because they are not budget-related. Frustrated progressives in the House and Senate argue that eliminating the filibuster would be the easiest way to pass controversial legislation, and wouldn’t require such a painful process.
“While no decisions have been made on a legislative path forward using Section 304 and some parameters still need to be worked out, the Parliamentarian’s opinion is an important step forward that this key pathway is available to Democrats if needed,” spokesman Justin Goodman said.
Republicans will seek to gum up the works and slow the business of the Senate to a crawl. As far as the infrastructure bill is concerned, they have at least one ally on the Democratic side. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin will not sign on to a bill that raises corporate tax rates above 25 percent and several other Democratic senators have agreed with their GOP colleagues that infrastructure is fine, but take all the other climate change and social justice stuff out of the bill. They want a “clean” infrastructure bill and several Republicans have indicated they could support such legislation.
But that’s not what Biden and the radicals want. The process of negotiations could stretch out into the summer, which would suit the Republicans just fine.