Now for the hard part.
Congressional Democrats are prepping their legislative package to carry out President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus plan with an eye to getting it passed in the next few weeks.
The House Budget Committee could meet this week or next to compile the material approved by other House panels into one massive bill that would then advance. It includes direct payments to households, a more generous child tax credit, tweaks to the Paycheck Protection Program and money for state and local governments.
Democrats want to have the bill completed before the expiration of several pandemic-related jobless programs, including the $300-a-week federal add-on to unemployment benefits, in mid-March.
“Members should be aware that the House may need to remain in session through the weekend next week to complete consideration of the American Rescue Plan” and send it to the Senate, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Tuesday in a letter to his Democratic colleagues. He said the final vote could come in the week of March 8 if the Senate amends the House-passed bill.
In a press conference last Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “We hope to have this all done by the end of February, certainly on the president’s desk in time to offset the March 14th deadline where some unemployment benefits will expire.”
Democrats have another incentive to get the bill done — to give Biden a concrete accomplishment he can tout in his first appearance before Congress. While the details of how to hold a socially-distant equivalent of a State of the Union speech remain unclear, Pelosi said the holdup is the relief package.
“We won’t be doing any of that until we pass our COVID bill. That is the first order of business,” she said.
What comes out of the budget committee likely won’t be the bill’s final form, if history is any guide.
First, as Pelosi has mentioned, it will go to the rules committee in the House before hitting the floor. Rules is traditionally the site of last-minute fixes to legislation to woo reluctant holdouts.
If it passes the House, the bill would go to the Senate, where it would face two major pitfalls — the chamber’s rules, including the so-called Byrd rule, and another round of “vote-a-rama,” a marathon series of quick floor votes on lightly debated amendments.
The Byrd rule, named after its proponent, former West Virginia Democrat and chamber rules guru Sen. Robert Byrd, limits what can be included in so-called reconciliation bills, which can pass the Senate with only 51 votes.
It prohibits reconciliation bills from including provisions that have no impact on spending or revenues or ones where the impact is “merely incidental” to the policy.
The Byrd rule is the big reason many analysts have been skeptical one of the key pieces in the Biden plan — boosting the federal minimum wage gradually from $7.25 an hour now to $15 in 2025 — would make it in the final bill. The increase has been seen in the past as only having a minimal effect on government finances that would likely be ruled “merely incidental.”
But Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders has been pushing to include the increase in the package and preparing for the “Byrd bath,” when Senate Budget staff from both parties try to persuade the Senate Parliamentarian to rule in their favor.
Sanders hired Bill Dauster, a respected expert on Senate rules who wrote a book on Senate procedure, to help make his case. Dauster has written publicly that a boost in the minimum wage wouldn’t run afoul of the Byrd rule.
Sanders also received a score from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office saying boosting the wage would cost the government about $54 billion over 10 years, a far bigger impact than it projected in a 2019 analysis. The CBO, at Sanders’ request, compared the wage boost to two provisions in the 2017 Republican tax overhaul, and found it would have a broader effect than either.
Both CBO findings could help make the case for the minimum wage with the parliamentarian.
That ruling will be crucial, as at least one Senate Democrat — Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia — has said he will not agree to overturn it if it goes against Democrats, a route that had been seen as a backup plan. With Democrats controlling 50 votes and relying on Vice President Kamala Harris for the tie breaker, even one defection could sink the bill.
“We’re not going to bust the filibuster, we’re not going to bust the Byrd rule that basically protects the filibuster,” Manchin has said. Manchin has said he favors a smaller boost to the wage, to $11 an hour .
According to the Congressional Research Service, 62 of 72 Byrd-rule challenges on the Senate floor have been sustained, meaning the offending provision was removed from the bill. Efforts to waive the rule have been successful only nine times in 59 attempts.
If the Senate changes the bill, it would have to go back to the House for a final vote, where Democrats can lose only three votes and still prevail.