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What is budget reconciliation, and how might Democrats use it to pass COVID relief?

Marielle Segarra Feb 3, 2021
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Democratic senators might use the reconciliation process to stop a potential Republican filibuster on President Biden's relief bill. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
COVID-19

What is budget reconciliation, and how might Democrats use it to pass COVID relief?

Marielle Segarra Feb 3, 2021
Heard on:
Democratic senators might use the reconciliation process to stop a potential Republican filibuster on President Biden's relief bill. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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President Biden told congressional Democrats on Wednesday that he’s willing to compromise on some elements of his $1.9 trillion relief proposal — like who would be eligible for the next round of direct payments — but he won’t budge on the size of those $1,400 checks or the need to act quickly.

This came a day after the president met with a group of Senate Republicans to discuss a possible bipartisan agreement on a relief bill. If they can’t reach a deal, both Biden and Democrats in Congress have said, they will pass the bill without Republican support using a process called budget reconciliation.

Here’s a refresher on what budget reconciliation is — and when it can be used.

To pass a bill in the House of Representatives, you need a majority of members to vote in favor. In the Senate, though, it’s a little more complicated.

“The final vote on any piece of legislation does pass with a simple majority,” said Kelly Whitener, associate professor at Georgetown University. But under Senate rules, you can’t get to that vote unless at least 60 senators agree to end debate.

“And if you don’t have the 60 votes, then members can filibuster and just offer lots of amendments, protract the debate, do anything, really, to stall and make it so you can’t move forward,” Whitener said.

Budget reconciliation is a way around this, but only in very specific cases. It’s a process created in a 1974 budget law that allows senators to bring a bill to a vote with a regular old majority.

They cannot use it for just any bill. There are lots of rules. For instance, it can’t affect Social Security. Also, whatever they’re trying to pass has to have a direct impact on the budget — to cost money or save money.

Relief checks would qualify, said Bill Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Also, he said, “any kind of tax reforms that would have a tax impact would be included.

Case in point: Republicans used budget reconciliation to pass the 2017 tax overhaul law.

During the Obama administration, Democrats used reconciliation to pass a companion bill to the Affordable Care Act. Before that, during the George W. Bush years, Republicans used it in support of tax cuts.

In all, lawmakers have passed 21 budget reconciliation bills since the process was created.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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