Less than two weeks after President Joe Biden signed into law one of Congress’ most expansive measures in decades, House Democratic leaders are already dreaming bigger.
With most items on their agenda hobbled by the Senate filibuster, top House Democrats are eyeing ways to muscle through drug pricing and climate policy goals using the same arcane budget process that let the party bypass GOP votes for its pandemic aid bill. Sweeping immigration bills are also on the wishlist for many members, with Democrats eager to fit what they can in Biden’s next high-profile package — which could be the party’s last shot at using the budget tool before the midterm elections.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer haven’t formally decided to use the budgetary tool known as reconciliation for Biden’s next major priority, an infrastructure and jobs plan. Biden and top Democrats are still publicly courting Republicans for his proposal. But given the Senate GOP’s continued reluctance, many senior Democrats in both chambers believe it will be the ultimate path.
House Democrats are in discussions to include two of the caucus’s signature bills — one, a drug pricing bill known as H.R. 3, and another a sweeping green infrastructure bill known as H.R. 2 — as part of the next reconciliation package, according to people familiar with their plans. Both would be enormous wins for Pelosi, whose caucus drafted the measures soon after retaking the majority in 2019.
Those plans are still in the early stages. House lawmakers left town Friday for a three-week recess, which Democratic chairs will spend starting to assemble their pieces of the package. That includes House Transportation Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who aims to mark up his piece of the massive bill by late May.
Influential factions within the Democratic caucus are also making the case to include more provisions using the budget process. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus wants to include the White House’s immigration bill, which would offer a path to citizenship for 11 million people who have been living in the U.S.
CHC Chair Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) made the pitch for an immigration effort to his colleagues on a private caucus call last week, declaring that Biden’s comprehensive plan should hitch a ride on the infrastructure bill given its dim prospects of surviving a Senate filibuster, according to people on the call.
Senior Democrats, however, acknowledge that such substantial legislation would be difficult — if not impossible — to get past the Senate parliamentarian, the chamber’s nonpartisan rules referee. They say health care and climate related bills are more likely to have a direct budget impact.
The Senate’s dense budget rules already forced the parliamentarian to nix one of the biggest pieces of Biden’s coronavirus aid package, a federal minimum wage hike. Still, Yarmuth said he believes many different health care and climate bills could survive the budget rules, as well as some aspects of immigration policy: “Not everything, but I think certain things can.”
Then there’s the problem of securing 218 votes: The more sprawling the package, the harder it becomes to lock down support across the caucus — a tougher task generally given the Democrats’ razor-thin margin.
Democrats concede that another massive partisan package is far from the ideal option under a president who often boasts of his track record of working across the aisle. But many also foresee a struggle to reach an agreement with Republicans on the contours of the infrastructure plan, not to mention how to pay for it.
Pelosi and other Democrats have floated options like hiking the corporate tax rate or capital gains tax to pay for any infrastructure bill. GOP leaders have balked at both, while offering few of their own.
Underpinning House Democrats’ push to pack the next reconciliation package with as many substantive elements as possible is their desire to make the most of the legislative powers they won in November. Many House Democrats are increasingly frustrated that their Senate counterparts haven’t yet moved to eliminate their 60-vote threshold for most bills.
"If they don’t get rid of the filibuster, then, well, let’s use the only mechanism we’re allowed to use," said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), who supports using the budget process for immigration changes.
He admitted that doing so would be as ill-suited as using a pair of pliers instead of a hammer to drive a nail into a piece of wood. But, Vargas added, that might be the only option.
"I think that’s silly to use this process, but if that’s the only thing we have … I’m for pushing it through, absolutely, in any way that we can,” he said.
Another Democrat, Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), added he wants to see a bill that would offer a pathway to citizenship for the immigrant population known as Dreamers if the Senate doesn’t pass that bill soon: “I think the best way to do it would be outside of reconciliation. But if we have to use reconciliation, we use reconciliation.”
Democrats last initiated the reconciliation process less than a month ago to pass Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, which also included long-time party priorities such as a child tax credit expansion and a rescue plan for multi-employer pensions.
The stakes are high for their second and final reconciliation package of the year. Most Democrats believe they won’t get another shot at using the budget tool before the midterms next fall due to election-year time constraints and the complexity of the process. Meanwhile, GOP leaders are already predicting they will recapture the House next year in an election cycle that’s been historically bad for the party in control of Washington.
Progressive Democrats, too, are putting together a long list of priorities they’d like to include in the next reconciliation bill, such as another push to raise the minimum wage. But this time, they say, Democrats shouldn’t accept another negative ruling from the Senate rules enforcer and miss out on a chance to give a raise to millions of the nation’s lowest-paid workers.
“Obviously, I have felt for some time that you can overrule the parliamentarian. So that wouldn’t be an issue for me,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said, adding that her caucus will continue pushing Senate Democrats to reform the filibuster and take up more House-passed bills.
“There just has to be" an overruling of the Senate parliamentarian, Jayapal added. "Otherwise we’re not going to be able to deliver our transformative pieces."
Caitlin Emma contributed to this report.