Senate Democrats Consider Using Reconciliation to Pass New COVID-19 Relief
Lawmakers have been negotiating on provisions of the most recent $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, which would be one of the largest spending bills ever passed by Congress, for several weeks. The spending plan currently includes $1,400 stimulus checks, boosted unemployment benefits, state and local aid, increased funds for the Paycheck Protection Program, hiking the minimum wage to $15 an hour over five years and more.
The current proposed COVID-19 rescue package also reportedly includes $25 billion for the restaurant industry, an industry that has arguably struggled more than any other during the pandemic. Restaurants could potentially receive up to $10 million in grants that they wouldn’t need to pay back unless they shut down after receiving the grant, providing a loan-forgiveness provision similar in scope to that of the Paycheck Protection Program. The provision, however, would not permit restaurants or chains with over 20 locations to apply. This is a response to the controversy that ensued after large restaurant chains like Shake Shack were able to apply for millions in PPP loans.
Biden previously said Democrats would pass $2,000 direct payments to individuals but this package only includes $1,400 direct payments –which, in addition to the $600 checks in December’s legislation, technically total $2,000. There has been discussion of decreasing eligibility for stimulus checks from $75,000 per individual and $150,000 per household to $50,000 per individual and $100,000 per household. This shift has been criticized by the progressives within the Democratic Party.
Democrats have the slimmest majority possible in the Senate with 51, as the chamber is split evenly between the parties with Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris acting as the tiebreaker. However, due to current Senate rules, most legislation actually requires 60 votes to pass, which means Democrats need the support of at least nine Republicans to pass their legislative priorities (assuming they have every Democrat on board). There are only two ways for Senate Democrats to get around this: End the filibuster that prompted this situation in the first place, which is unlikely to happen without support from moderate Democrats Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, or use the reconciliation process.
What is reconciliation? Reconciliation is a rule that was included when Congress rewrote budget rules in 1974. The goal of the rule was to allow Congress to pass a new budget resolution with new spending priorities and quickly pass the legislation to reflect the needs of the moment. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reports reconciliation was first used in 1980 and has since been used to pass 25 bills. That process allows the party in control of Congress to pass large spending bills with a simple 51-vote majority without having to worry about a filibuster. A recent example of reconciliation was in 2017 when the GOP used the rule to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
President Biden initially emphasized his desire for bipartisan support and claimed to want to pass the new stimulus package with Republican support. The Senate spent Thursday night and early Friday morning passing and defeating various amendments to the legislation, one of which permits Democrats to move forward with reconciliation if they so choose. Amid the bipartisan consensus on several amendments, however, Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said he is “hopeful that the Administration and Democrats up here on the Hill will realize we need to sit down and work something out that’s bipartisan.”
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