What is reconciliation?
Reconciliation is a budget process outlined in the Congressional Budget Act to get spending and revenue estimates aligned with the targets assumed in the Budget Resolution. To do that, Congress usually has to change the government’s levels of spending and/or taxes, which are politically difficult and unpopular activities.
The reconciliation process is an optional procedure that in recent Congresses has been utilized to advance major policy proposals that could not garner 60 votes to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. It is an especially useful tool when there is single party control of Congress and the White House.
Legislative efforts to change spending or revenue levels are politically difficult. And as an incentive to do what many lawmakers view as politically unpopular, there are expedited procedures and rules for reconciliation, which are of significant value in the U.S. Senate.
Circumventing Senate Traditions
Reconciliation is a big deal in the Senate because its consideration provides a fast track process to circumvent Senate tradition and procedure.
The Senate has a tradition of procedural votes that require a three-fifths majority (60 votes), as well as unlimited floor debate (e.g., “the filibuster”) and no limit on the types of amendments offered. These traditions and procedures give the minority party significant influence on the legislative activities of the U.S. Senate.
But with reconciliation, procedural motions are eliminated. There is no motion to proceed to the bill, and there is no motion to end debate, both of which would require a bipartisan 60 vote threshold under “regular order.” Instead, there are strict time limits—20 hours–for floor debate, which ensures that the reconciliation legislation will not be filibustered.
In addition, there are limits on amendments. Amendments offered during floor consideration must have a budgetary impact; amendments must be in compliance with the Byrd Rule as interpreted by the Senate Parliamentarian. If the Parliamentarian finds that an underlying provision or an amendment to reconciliation is in violation of the Byrd Rule, a point of order is raised. It requires a bipartisan 60-vote threshold to waive the Byrd Rule point of order.
In addition, amendments must be germane (i.e., relevant) to the Committees receiving instructions. For example, you cannot have an amendment to change taxes (the Finance Committee) if the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee received the reconciliation instruction to reduce spending.
What to Expect on the Senate Floor
After the 20 hours of debate on the reconciliation measure expires, “vote-o-rama” begins on the Senate floor; it goes until exhaustion.
The gloves come off with vote-o-rama. Senators have to take votes anything and everything; amendments do not have to be budget related. Expect to see amendments on hot button issues on abortion, gas prices, inflation and gun control during the Senate’s vote-o-rama.
Senators have to be very careful of the votes taken during vote-o-rama. If amendments are adopted to a reconciliation bill which are not budgetary in nature, it will threaten the privileged status of the underlying measure.
Then what happens…?
After the Senate passes the reconciliation bill (Inflation Reduction Act), the bill will be considered on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Because the U.S. House of Representatives is governed by majority rule, the legislation will quickly move to the House floor for a vote where it will pass along party lines.
The House is unlikely to modify or change the legislation for a variety of reasons. First, President Biden has indicated that he wants Congress to “pass it.” House Leadership and Rules Committee will govern consideration of the IRA during the House floor debate and to ensure its passage. Secondly, mid-terms are only a few months away and members from both Chambers are anxious to get back to their home district or state. And third, amending the legislation would require another tense Senate floor debate–with another vote-o-rama–potentially threatening the reconciliation measure the President is eager to sign into law.
Could Congress wait until after the August recess to pass a reconciliation bill? Yes, but that outcome is unlikely. There are few remaining legislative days in September ahead of the mid-term elections the current reconciliation instruction in the FY22-31 (S.Con.Res 14) budget resolution expires on September 30, 2022. In the weeks before the mid-terms, Congress will need to address discretionary funding levels and potentially consider the Defense Authorization bill in the Senate. Technically, Congress could do another budget resolution for fiscal years 2023-2032 with new reconciliation instructions, but it is unlikely given the declining legislative days and unfinished work of the 117th Congress.
Robyn Hiestand, vice president, is a former budget analyst for the Senate Budget Committee and now brings her years of experience in the Senate to provide Bose Public Affairs Group clients important, strategic advice and advocacy.
Bose Public Affairs Group is a fully integrated public affairs firm dedicated to successfully navigating clients through the many pathways of political, legislative, regulatory, communications and media environments.