How Much of Biden’s Agenda Can the Democrats Pass Alone?

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Ultimately, the answer is “whatever Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will go along with.” But procedurally, an option some Democrats once found promising just got much trickier.

Basically, if they’re not going to eliminate the filibuster — which, by all indications, Manchin and Sinema won’t do — the Democrats are restricted to passing “reconciliation” bills. These have to be limited to budget matters, and historically they’ve also been limited to one per fiscal year. Federal fiscal years change over in October, and the COVID bill already took care of the reconciliation bill for fiscal year 2021, so that would leave them just two more shots before the midterms.

However, some Democrats have considered passing multiple reconciliations bills each year, using the procedural trick of “revising” a year’s budget resolution. The Senate parliamentarian initially said this was okay under the arcane statutes that govern the process. But now she’s given some extra details, and they make things harder for the Democrats. As Bloomberg Law explains,

Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough said that to revise a budget resolution, such as the fiscal 2021 resolution used to pass the Covid 19 relief bill in March, the measure must go through committee and have floor amendment votes. That would make the process of revising a budget as time consuming as doing a fresh one. MacDonough also ruled that there must be a legitimate reason — such as a new economic downturn — for a revision, the people said.

The ruling makes it more likely Democrats will attempt a fresh fiscal 2022 budget to bypass Republicans if bipartisan infrastructure talks fail. It also likely restricts their ability to revisit that same budget later to pass additional fiscal initiatives. Democrats have talked of using a fiscal 2023 budget to expand Obamacare or cut drug prices.

Assuming Manchin and Sinema will never agree to gut the filibuster or override the parliamentarian, this would seem to eliminate the chance of a total free-for-all, where the Democrats just pass one reconciliation bill after another. But don’t rest easy: They can still spend a ton of money the normal way as each new fiscal year rolls around. If Manchin and Sinema say it’s okay, of course.