New Senate filibuster rule means families may wait even longer for affordable health care


The Senate parliamentarian reportedly just changed her mind about the need for supermajority to pass bills.

A new ruling from the Senate parliamentarian could make it harder for the Democratic majority to pass legislation, including measures to improve access to affordable health care.

Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, whose role is to advise the Senate on interpretations of the body's rules and procedures, reportedly has determined that under the Senate's complicated rules, the Democratic majority can circumvent a filibuster on fiscal policies only one more time this year.

In order for the Senate to vote on most legislation, at least 60 senators must agree to end debate on it. This means that just 41 senators can prevent the passage of nearly all bills.

But an exception is made for what is known as budget reconciliation: It allows a simple majority to pass taxation and spending legislation in one big package.

In the past, this has only been permitted once per year. In April, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer asked whether the Senate could use this process to amend an already reconciled budget, effectively allowing multiple reconciliation packages in a single year. MacDonough reportedly said at the time that that was permissible.

"The Parliamentarian has advised that a revised budget resolution may contain budget reconciliation instructions. This confirms the Leader's interpretation of the Budget Act and allows Democrats additional tools to improve the lives of Americans if Republican obstruction continues," a Schumer spokesperson said in April.

Schumer's office framed it as "an important step forward that this key pathway is available to Democrats if needed."

Without a single GOP vote, Democrats passed the $1.9 American Rescue Plan in March, providing $1,400 relief checks and 2021 tax cuts for most Americans, unemployment insurance, billions of dollars for school reopening, and a massive investment in curbing the coronavirus pandemic.

With Republicans continuing to object to all but a fraction of the new infrastructure spending President Joe Biden has requested in his American Jobs Plan, it is looking increasingly likely that the Democratic majority may have to use reconciliation again to pass it.

Biden has requested $1.7 trillion in new funds for transportation, clean energy, broadband, water systems, child care, and caregiving infrastructure — down from his initial request of $2.25 trillion — funded by more corporate tax revenue. Senate Republicans have offered just $257 billion in new infrastructure spending.

But Biden has also requested $1.8 trillion for his American Families Plan, which would raise taxes on those earning $400,000 or more annually and invest those funds in paid family leave, free universal preschool and community college, and more affordable health care and child care. Republicans have also opposed this, meaning it would also likely have to be passed through reconciliation if it is to become law.

Under the parliamentarian's new ruling, it would not be permissible to do these separately in the same year without demonstrating extraordinary economic conditions.

While it is possible that the two packages could be combined in one reconciliation agreement, it is unclear whether every single Democratic senator would be on board with that approach. A simple majority of senators could also eliminate the 60-vote requirement entirely, but a handful of Democrats have vowed not to do so.

Furthermore, not all of the Democratic Party's priorities are included in Biden's two plans. His promised health insurance public option, expansion of Medicare eligibility, and prescription drug price reductions have not yet been included in his legislative packages.

With fewer opportunities to use budget reconciliation, these may now have to wait for a future Congress.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.