Covid-19 relief faces time crunch with impeachment around the corner
Posted January 25, 2021 8:29 a.m. EST
CNN — Less than a week into his new administration, President Joe Biden's promise of restoring bipartisanship is going to face even more hurdles as Republicans are signaling they have little interest in taking up his first legislative priority: another massive Covid-19 relief bill.
Meanwhile, the administration is just two weeks away from the beginning of an impeachment trial that will halt all other Senate business, creating even more incentive to act fast. How quickly Biden has to abandon his calls for unity in the name of getting something done amid a pandemic will set the tone for his relationship with Republicans on Capitol Hill and more broadly set the tone for his first 100 days as a President leading in a time of crisis.
What you'll see Monday on impeachment
The article of impeachment will be delivered around 7 p.m. ET on Monday when House managers walk it over to the Senate chamber. Senators will be sworn in Tuesday and then there will be about a two-week break until the focus is back on impeachment. In the meantime, Democrats are going to be fighting to confirm as many of Biden's nominations as possible. They'll also have to decide soon about how to proceed with the organizing resolution that has been stalled for a week. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has insisted that Democrats promise -- in writing -- they won't blow up the filibuster in the organizing resolution. Democrats don't want to give up their leverage on it even as they argue they have no immediate plans to get rid of the filibuster.
It takes 60 votes to pass this organizing resolution. That means that McConnell is daring Democrats not to blow up the filibuster in a disagreement about whether they will promise not to blow up the filibuster. One more time: in order to pass this resolution without Republicans, Democrats would have to change the rules to allow it to pass by a simple 51-vote majority. That -- in essence-- would be eradicating the filibuster.
What last night told us about bipartisanship
Multiple aides CNN spoke with made it clear that Sunday's call between a group of bipartisan senators and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, Jeff Zients and Louisa Terrell was a good first step, but there is still broad disagreement about the overall price tag of this stimulus package and what's actually needed.
Everyone acknowledges more money or testing and vaccines is essential. But a $15 minimum wage? Billions in state and local funding? $1,400 stimulus checks? Multiple aides told CNN that senators on both sides argued they needed more data as to why nearly $2 trillion was the right choice. They just passed a more than $900 billion package a month ago. One Republican aide told CNN that it wasn't just Republicans balking at that number, but that some of the Democrats on the call were also "cool" on spending so much. Checks, they argued, needed to be more targeted. If a fight over a stimulus bill's price tag sounds familiar, it's because it is. The cost of last stimulus plan bedeviled Republicans and Democrats for six months the last time Congress attempted this.
All you need to know: After the meeting, Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine who is broadly viewed as one of the most "gettable" Republican senators are on this package released a statement to CNN saying "It seems premature to be considering a package of this size and scope."
In other words: if Biden and his team want this to be done quickly, they might have to pull the plug on their goal of getting 10 Republicans to sign on and move (AKA as soon as the next week or two) to the next step: a procedural budget maneuver that would only require 51 votes.
A quick refresher on that big old process: reconciliation
This is a process that requires the House and Senate Budget committees to first pass a budget with specific instructions to House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees to write a Covid relief bill. The Senate would then have to pass that budget with 51 votes, but when they do that it will unlock a lengthy budget vote-a-rama in the Senate that will keep us up through the night as members offer hundreds of political amendments.
Once the budget passes the House and Senate, each committee writes their Covid relief bill. And that bill will have to meet a very specific set of criteria that will be tested by the Senate parliamentarian in a process we affectionately refer to as a "Byrd bath." It's named after former Sen. Robert Byrd, who established a set of rules reconciliation bills have to comply with in order to make sure the budget process wasn't taken advantage of by the majority party. There are a handful of rules.
Supporters of the proposal have to prove that the bill in question either increases revenues or reduces spending.That those changes are not merely "incidental."That all the changes are within the jurisdiction of the committees outlined in the reconciliation instructions.Senators for their proposal have to achieve at least the same amount of savings as the House bill did. And you have to hit the same targets in the one-year and five-year windows.The proposal cannot have any impact on Social Security.The provision must not increase spending or decrease revenues outside of the budget window if you want it to be permanent.
There are already lengthy talks underway now in the House and Senate budget committees, Finance and Ways and Means about what provisions would be acceptable under those guidelines. There is a robust debate happening right now about whether or not some appropriations provisions would be acceptable (traditionally, appropriations haven't been handled using reconciliation). There are debates happening about whether the $15 minimum wage would meet the criteria. There are a lot of very smart people on the Republican and Democratic side who have been wrestling with these questions for weeks now. And, that's because there has always been an expectation that at some point, Democrats would have to pull the plug on bipartisan talks and do this without Republicans.
Not so fast
Moving ahead with reconciliation would still require Democrats to be completely united. That means that it can't just be progressive members like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren leading this charge. Democrats need 100% unity. They need Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Maine Sen. Angus King, Arizona Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly. We don't yet how those members would vote if the reconciliation process began to occur in the next week or two. Would they argue that there hasn't been enough good faith negotiations with Republicans? We just don't know right now.