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How the Senate Strategy Known as Budget Reconciliation Works

(EDITORS NOTE: Image was created using a variable planed lens.) The U.S. Capitol is seen in this aerial photograph taken with a tilt-shift lens above Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2019. Democrats and Republicans are at odds over whether to provide new funding for Trump’s signature border wall, as well as the duration of a stopgap measure. Some lawmakers proposed delaying spending decisions by a few weeks, while others advocated for a funding bill to last though February or March. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg
(EDITORS NOTE: Image was created using a variable planed lens.) The U.S. Capitol is seen in this aerial photograph taken with a tilt-shift lens above Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2019. Democrats and Republicans are at odds over whether to provide new funding for Trump’s signature border wall, as well as the duration of a stopgap measure. Some lawmakers proposed delaying spending decisions by a few weeks, while others advocated for a funding bill to last though February or March. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg (Bloomberg)
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In the US Senate, a 60-vote supermajority is needed to pass most legislation. An important exception to that rule is the fast-track process known as budget reconciliation, which Democrats hope to deploy to pass a tax, health and climate bill viewed as crucial to their chances in November’s midterm elections.

1. Why is 60 votes normally needed?

The Senate, envisioned by the founders to be a highly deliberative body, was created with no mechanism to end debate on a given topic. Senators quickly realized that long speeches could delay action on legislation they didn’t like. In the 1850s, the practice of talking a bill to death got a name -- filibuster, from the Dutch word for “pirate.” In 1917, senators adopted a rule establishing that debate could be ended upon a so-called cloture vote supported by a two-thirds supermajority. That bar was lowered in 1975 to a three-fifths supermajority, meaning it takes 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate to end debate.

2. What is budget reconciliation?

It’s a procedure created by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 that allows for expedited consideration of legislation related to spending, taxing and the federal debt limit. First, the House and Senate must agree to a budget resolution, which contains instructions to specific committees in each chamber and usually includes a deficit impact. Then, bills advanced in the name of “reconciling” tax and spending practices with that budget resolution need only a simple majority vote to win approval in the 100-seat Senate. There are limits on what qualifies for reconciliation and on how many bills can be deemed as reconciliation each year.

3. Is it unusual?

Congress has passed more than 20 budget reconciliation bills since 1980, including deficit-reduction packages during the 1980s and 1990s, welfare reform in 1996, parts of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax-cut law.

4. Why are Democrats using it?

With only 50 of the 100 Senate seats (counting two independents who vote with them), Democrats hold the majority only because the vice president -- Democrat Kamala Harris -- breaks ties. Finding 10 Republicans to support any Democratic initiative is a tall task.

5. What can and can’t be in a budget reconciliation bill?

The Byrd rule -- named for Robert Byrd, a Democratic senator who represented West Virginia for 51 years -- requires that all provisions in a reconciliation bill have an impact on federal revenue, spending and deficits, and that no extraneous provisions are included. The rule has been a nuisance to both parties in recent history. For instance, Republicans had to ditch their preferred (and PR-friendly) title for their 2017 tax-cut law, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, because jobs aren’t directly related to revenue, spending or deficits -- though that name has stuck unofficially.

6. What can Republicans do to prevent Democrats from using reconciliation?

Any senator can challenge any part of a reconciliation as extraneous by raising a point of order or offering an amendment to strike the provision. The Senate parliamentarian rules on whether the objection is valid; if so, the offending provision is typically deleted from the bill. While the Senate has traditionally deferred to the rulings of the parliamentarian on interpreting arcane rules, the actual ruling is made by the chair -- which, when Democrats need her in the chamber, will be Harris, the vice president. It would take 51 senators to overturn a ruling of the chair, and Republicans only have 50 votes. Budgets are also subject to what is known as a vote-a-rama, when senators can offer theoretically unlimited amendments to try and force Democrats to take tough votes. At some point, however, Harris could shut down those efforts.

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