How Democrats Could Use Reconciliation to Pass Infrastructure Bill

Senate parliamentarian has advised that a revised budget resolution can include reconciliation instructions, opening a path for Democrats to pass spending legislation, like an infrastructure bill with no Republican support, by a simple majority vote.

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Democrats are still in the early stages of trying to figure out how big to go in a Democratic-only infrastructure bill. But they have no room for error in the Senate, where they need all 50 of their members and Vice President Harris to pass an infrastructure bill under reconciliation.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) cast doubt on Republican support, stating “my view of infrastructure is we ought to build that which we can afford, and not either whack the economy with major tax increases or run up the national debt even more."   

On the other hand, Democrats are under pressure and enormous strain from their party’s liberal base to make sure a big social spending agenda isn’t undercut or even torpedoed by work on a bipartisan infrastructure bill.       

Biden caused an uproar among Republican last week when he pledged he wouldn’t sign a bipartisan infrastructure package on its own, declaring: “I’m not signing it. It’s in tandem.”

The solution will be reconciliation. 

Budget Reconciliation Explained

Created by Congress in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, reconciliation allows for expedited consideration of certain tax, spending and debt limit legislation. In the Senate, reconciliation bills are not subject to filibuster and the scope of amendments is limited, giving this process real advantages for enacting controversial budget and tax legislation with just 51 votes, rather than the usual threshold of 60 votes.

The purpose of the reconciliation process is to allow Congress to use an expedited procedure when considering legislation that would bring spending, revenue and debt limit laws into compliance with the current budgetary priorities. Prior to the passing of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package signed earlier this year, 21 total budget reconciliation bills have been signed into law.

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. 

The reconciliation option does not guarantee a smooth path for Biden’s agenda this time around though. With narrow majorities in both chambers, party leaders will have to keep Democrats almost entirely united to be able to use the maneuver successfully. Democrats are already haggling over what should be included in the infrastructure plan, and how to pay for it. 

Democrats still face an uphill battle in passing the bill and would be better off coming up with a plan where both parties can come to an agreement.  

Support Growing for Reconciliation

When infrastructure talks began, the goal was to pursue legislation on a strictly bipartisan basis. Progressives have expressed concerns that their priorities like climate change could be left now that Biden and Democratic leadership are pursuing a two-track system to pass the bipartisan infrastructure deal and a separate bill through budget reconciliation rules on Democratic votes alone. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said on Sunday that he will not support the bipartisan infrastructure bill without a reconciliation bill.

“Let me be clear: There will not be a bipartisan infrastructure deal without a reconciliation bill that substantially improves the lives of working families and combats the existential threat of climate change,” Sanders said in a tweet.