A new Senate ruling provides Democrats an opening to evade GOP filibusters and approve some bills themselves - but only in cases like an economic downturn

Chuck Schumer
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York). AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
  • A new ruling from a top Senate official said there are limits to the number of times Democrats can embark on reconciliation in a given fiscal year.

  • The parliamentarian ruling emphasizes that Democrats must argue there's a reason to start the process more than once in a year, such as in an economic recession.

  • Biden is still negotiating with the GOP on his $4 trillion economic plans.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

A new ruling from the Senate parliamentarian could pose a roadblock for President Joe Biden's $4 trillion economic agenda and Democrats attempting to evade a Republican filibuster as they push ahead with major spending plans on health, education, and childcare.

A ruling issued last Friday from Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough said there are limits to the number of times Democrats can embark on reconciliation in a given fiscal year. It's a legislative tactic designed to approve some bills with a simple majority of 51 votes in the Senate, as also skirt the 60-vote threshold known as the filibuster. A person familiar confirmed the official's ruling.

Any amendment to an existing budget, such as the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law approved in March under reconciliation, would have to go through the full committee and amendment process. It indicates that revisiting a budget resolution would contain no procedural shortcuts compared to opening a new one.

Rulings from MacDonough are not made public. It was first reported by Punchbowl News.

Zach Moller, deputy director of economic policy at the center-left think tank Third Way, said he believed it was a "narrow ruling" that won't set back the capacity of Democrats to draft a new budget resolution for the 2022 fiscal year unlocking reconciliation.

But the top Senate official's ruling emphasizes there's a bar to clear for lawmakers to start the process more than once beyond political convenience, such as a recession.

"We always knew that Democrats were going to be able to use reconciliation three times before the November 2022 elections," he told Insider. "I'm interpreting it as, 'If you want to do it again, make the case you're meeting this test,' as opposed to a broad ruling - unlimited budget resolutions, unlimited budget reconciliation."

He added: "It's important to know this is a fluid situation and it may change, but this does not seem to have any impact on the ability to use the FY2022 budget resolution for the American Jobs Plan or the American Families plan."

Biden is negotiating with Republicans on his two-part, $4 trillion infrastructure plans. He is scheduled to meet with the lead Republican negotiator Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia on Wednesday as talks reach a make-or-break phase.

Republicans pitched a new infrastructure plan last week with only $257 billion in new spending above what Congress has already set. Still, the Biden administration appeared receptive to parts of it, though they do not want to fund it with stimulus money as Republicans are seeking.

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