With control of Congress came a serious treat for Democrats: the chance for big spending plans without the need for GOP votes. Their first bite at that treat yielded nearly $2 trillion in Covid aid. The second’s been far less appetizing.
But even as Democrats struggle to unify on their second party-line push — a social spending blueprint that tackles everything from climate change to paid leave — some of them still want to take a third bite. For those Democrats, the chance to squeeze Republicans on popular issues like health care ahead of the midterms is too good to pass up, despite the laborious budget maneuver they’d have to employ yet again.
House Budget Chair John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who recently announced his retirement, sees a savvy political opportunity in a third reconciliation bill. He’s even spoken with Speaker Nancy Pelosi about using the budget tactic next year, arguing that it would be both good policy and political strategy before the election, and Pelosi hasn’t ruled that out.
“Force Republicans to vote against, like, Medicare expansion, or child care or senior care, depending on what we decide not to put in this package,” Yarmuth said in an interview. “I don’t see where the downside is in an election year, because we’d be trying to do things that are really popular.”
At the moment, only a few Democrats agree with Yarmuth. Most are preoccupied with the troubled social spending bill, making a third attempt at using reconciliation the last thing on their minds. That’s particularly true of Senate Democrats, who just want to get through the pile of legislative work that remains this year.
“You’re hearing that from people on my side of the aisle?” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said of including additional party priorities in a third reconciliation measure next year. “I haven’t even thought of that.”
“One thing at a time,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), when asked about a third go-round with the time-consuming exercise that is budget reconciliation. He added that "nobody is really thinking about that, because we have to land this airplane first.”
Democrats’ to-do list in the next two months includes wrapping up Biden’s social spending package, House passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill and finding a long-term solution to the debt ceiling as well as government funding before Dec. 3. The social safety net plan has bedeviled the party for months as leaders slash the package to satisfy centrists while trying to placate progressives who’ve always wanted to go bigger.
Amid that back-and-forth, some Democrats have contended that whatever gets tossed could wind up in a third party-line spending plan that passes under reconciliation next year. And Biden has suggested that Democrats will find a way to satisfy their multitrillion-dollar spending aspirations, even though the price tag for his current reconciliation bill is set to shrink significantly. While Senate Budget Committee Democrats agreed on a $3.5 trillion topline months ago, the likely price tag is now much closer to $2 trillion.
If Democrats decide to push past their weariness and try for a third reconciliation package next year, they have some precedent for success. The party used the tactic this spring for a pandemic relief bill that boosted popular programs aimed at buoying families and the middle class.
Democrats would have to start, if they want to use reconciliation to pass major legislation without GOP votes for the third time in two years, by including instructions in the budget resolution for fiscal 2023. Should they go that route, it’s not clear whether they’d try to include any of the policy provisions they’re now having to cut from their social spending plan.
A number of provisions originally drafted as part of the current spending bill are in jeopardy, as Democrats look to carve out an intraparty agreement on the broader legislation. That includes a massive expansion of health coverage for seniors, clean electricity incentives, key tax policies and more.
Yarmuth said that "I don’t think you want to choose and say which ones would go in next year” during a possible third reconciliation debate. “I think you want to fight for everything this year, everything we can get.”
But pursuing additional victories through that filibuster workaround could prove even tougher in an election year, when a number of moderates are already squeamish about spending and Democratic majorities in both chambers are on a knife’s edge. Republican leaders are already using Democrats’ fiscal wish list as a political cudgel, hoping to take back control of the House and make a play for the Senate majority as well.
The GOP offensive ahead of the midterms has also compounded a standoff over the nation’s borrowing limit. Republican leaders refused to help lift the cap on the nation’s credit while Democrats pursue party-line spending plans, until Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently offered a two-month extension that pushed the debt cliff to early December.
Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who’s tasked with drafting some of the biggest revenue generators for this year’s social spending bill, said he’s not entertaining the possibility of punting any of his priorities to a third package.
“I’m not going to speculate on what members admittedly say is speculation,” Wyden said. “We’ve got our hands full with what we’re dealing with right now.”