After MacDonough on Thursday dashed the majority party’s hopes of passing a $15-an-hour minimum-wage increase within the bill, Democrats were left to debate a variety of options, including redoing the legislation, dropping the wage increase and trying to override MacDonough’s ruling.
But at least one lawmaker called for an even more radical solution: firing the Senate’s referee.
“Abolish the filibuster. Replace the parliamentarian,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said in a tweet Thursday. “What’s a Democratic majority if we can’t pass our priority bills? This is unacceptable.”
The Biden administration showed little appetite to challenge MacDonough following her ruling on Thursday, saying it was “disappointed” but would move forward with the stimulus without the minimum-wage increase.
Still, Omar’s suggestion isn’t without precedent. Twenty years ago, faced with a similar hurdle in an equally divided Senate for an ambitious tax-cutting plan, Republicans fired the parliamentarian standing in their way.
Parliamentarians are essentially the umpires of the Senate, ensuring that lawmakers follow the rules that govern how legislation moves forward. In recent years, the most difficult calls have involved bills passed through budget reconciliation, which allows the Senate to end debate and call a vote with the support of a simple majority. MacDonough has struck prohibited measures from those bills several times, confounding both Republicans and Democrats.
Parliamentarians often serve for decades and span multiple presidencies. Only six people have served in the role since its inception in 1935, and MacDonough, an independent and the first woman to serve as Senate parliamentarian, has been in the position since 2012.
MacDonough earned her degrees from George Washington University and Vermont Law School. She began working as an assistant parliamentarian for the Senate in 1999 before eventually being appointed by a Democrat to replace her predecessor after he retired in 2012. She has played a critical role in refereeing Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and unsuccessfully tried to dissuade Democrats from barring filibusters during most confirmation hearings for presidential appointees.
Generally, the parliamentarian’s rulings are respected by whichever party is in power.
But in 2001, Republicans took a drastic step after a series of rulings went against their plans. The Senate was evenly split at the time, with the GOP holding a razor-thin majority thanks to recently elected Vice President Richard B. Cheney’s tiebreaking vote.
Republicans tried to usher tax cuts through Congress under the budget reconciliation process that allows the Senate to move legislation forward with a simple 51-vote majority rather than the 60 votes normally required to avoid a filibuster. But then-Senate Parliamentarian Robert Dove ruled that most of the tax cuts and a measure creating a $5 billion fund for natural disaster damage could not be considered using the reconciliation process.
He was promptly dismissed by Secretary of the Senate Gary Sisco at the behest of then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), the Senate’s top Democrat at the time, called the firing “very disappointing and extremely harmful to the process,” but did not say much else.
The move to oust Dove, who had been standing in the Republicans’ way, did not stop future parliamentarians from frustrating senators in both parties over the next two decades. His successor, Alan Frumin, once said, “I know I’ve done my job when everyone thinks I’m somehow favoring the other side.” Frumin and MacDonough, who took over the role after his retirement, have frustrated both Republicans and Democrats seeking to bypass legislation-blocking filibusters.
Most Democrats upset at MacDonough’s ruling on Thursday pushed less extreme responses, such as overruling her. If Vice President Harris chose that path, Democrats would still need votes to do so, and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has publicly vowed to oppose going against the parliamentarian.
“The Senate parliamentarian issues an advisory opinion,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said in a tweet Thursday evening. “The VP can overrule them — as has been done before. We should do EVERYTHING we can to keep our promise, deliver a $15 minimum wage, and give 27 million workers a raise.”
Parliamentarians have been ignored in the past, like in 1975, when Vice President Nelson Rockefeller ignored the advice of the parliamentarian as the Senate debated filibuster rules. MacDonough has been overruled twice before: in 2013, when Democrats deployed the so-called nuclear option to eliminate filibusters to approve presidential nominees, and in 2017, when Republicans expanded the filibuster ban to include Supreme Court nominees.
But White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain recently said the administration will not consider acting against MacDonough’s advice. Biden “will work with leaders in Congress to determine the best path forward because no one in this country should work full time and live in poverty,” he said.
Despite MacDonough’s ruling, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) vowed on Friday to pass a version of the stimulus package that still included the minimum-wage increase.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) also promised to keep fighting for a minimum-wage bump, but did not specify how the Senate would approach the issue.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has been one of the most vocal supporters of a minimum-wage increase, proposed an alternative plan to potentially get around MacDonough’s decision by implementing penalties and incentives to push companies toward higher wages.
“I will be working with my colleagues in the Senate to move forward with an amendment to take tax deductions away from large, profitable corporations that don’t pay workers at least $15 an hour and to provide small businesses with the incentives they need to raise wages,” Sanders said in a statement. “That amendment must be included in this reconciliation bill.”