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What Budget Reconciliation Means in Congress: NPR

A copy of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act conference report can be found on the United States Capitol on December 18, 2017. The legislation was passed using the budget reconciliation process.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

What Budget Reconciliation Means in Congress: NPR

A copy of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act conference report can be found on the United States Capitol on December 18, 2017. The legislation was passed using the budget reconciliation process.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

This story is part of “The Basics” by The NPR Politics Podcast, where we regularly explain a key idea behind the news we talk about on our show. To subscribe to The NPR Politics Podcast here.

Senate Democrats are working on a massive $ 3.5 trillion economic plan that, if passed, would make significant federal investments in child care, immigration and climate change programs.

Unlike the recent infrastructure deal that was passed by the chamber with the support of 19 Republicans, this bill should not be bipartisan.

While Democrats do not have a majority large enough to pass the 60-vote threshold that has become almost necessary to pass major legislation through the Senate, they plan to use an obscure process known as budget reconciliation. to pass the bill with a simple simple majority vote.

But the process is complicated – and the provision’s complex rules could mean Democrats will have to remove certain political elements that are at the heart of President Biden’s agenda.

Both houses of Congress passed the resolution outlining the budget, with instructions for committees to draft $ 3.5 trillion in new spending. Now, work is underway in key committees to fill in the policy details and exact financial figures. It will then be up to the House and Senate to vote on identical versions of a final bill before sending it to Biden for signature.

What is budget reconciliation?

For a bill to become law, of course, it must pass through both chambers of Congress: the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Typically, in the House of Representatives, a bill is passed when at least 218 members support it – half of the total 435 representatives, plus one. If there are vacations or absences, a bill is passed if it obtains the support of the majority of the members who vote.

In the Senate, however, things are more complicated: long-standing rules require that most laws be supported by Following more than half of senators, at least 60 out of 100.


Because it is rare for a party to win 60 or more seats, Senators often have to choose between:

  1. failing to act when both parties disagree or
  2. draft a bill that both parties can support.

Sometimes, however, the ruling party can use special rules to pass a small number of Senate budget bills each quarter with just 50 votes. It is reconciliation. (In a 50-50 split-party Senate, the vice president breaks the tie.)

As you can guess, the budget reconciliation was meant to help Congress pass the budget bills. Now, however, it is used to spend all kinds of things.

Democrats used reconciliation to pass some health care changes in 2010, and Republicans used it to pass tax cuts in 2017, as well as in their unsuccessful attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act during Donald Trump’s presidency. It was also used to pass a COVID-19 relief package early in Biden’s administration.

Why doesn’t Congress use budget reconciliation to pass every bill?

It makes sense to wonder why a party with a majority in the Senate, but with less than 60 members in total, wouldn’t use this special tool to pass every bill it hopes for.

But budget reconciliation isn’t as simple as adding policies to a bill and putting it to a vote. Reconciliation can generally only be used once per year. There are also special rules for what counts as a budget item and what does not.

What are the rules of what can be adopted with budget reconciliation?

The process is defined by a fiscal rule, known as the “Byrd Rule”, which is named after its lead author, former Senator Robert Byrd, DW.Va.

The rule says that reconciliation can only be used for things that change spending (the money the federal government pays) or income (the money the federal government takes).

The list of violators of the Byrd rule includes measures:

  • without budgetary impact
  • outside the jurisdiction of the committee that drafted them
  • with minimal or “ancillary” budgetary impact
  • that increase deficits outside a time window specified in the budget resolution
  • it would change social security
  • it would cost the federal government money (increase the “deficit”) after 10 years.

If this sounds complicated to you, it is! And senators often have provisions they care about taken out of the bill for breaking one or more rules.

Who decides whether a finance bill follows the rules?

It’s the parliamentarian, a non-partisan Senate arbiter whose job it is to be an expert on the rules of the body. Current MP Elizabeth MacDonough was appointed by then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., In 2012.

What is a “vote-a-rama”?

Budget bills come with a special voting boon called “vote-a-rama” that starts when debate on the bill is over.

Senators can propose endless amendments without further debate. There is no limit on the number of amendments each person can propose and no limit on the number of amendments each party can propose.

Voting on amendments continues until senators run out of amendments – or the energy to keep voting – and come to unanimous agreement to stop. We know that votes-a-ramas last for hours, sometimes starting in the morning and continuing through the night.

The vote-a-rama is also a time when senators will attempt to overrule parts of the budget resolution through amendments and an objection known as a point of order.

What happens when a budget reconciliation bill is adopted?

Now things are getting a lot simpler. Once the House and Senate pass the final package – one that meets all budget requirements and satisfies just enough lawmakers – it heads to the president’s office for a signature.

Once the president signs it, expect to see a lot of fanfare. Budget reconciliation invoices are often used to settle debts. really important to the ruling party, such as health care under President Barack Obama and tax cuts under Trump.

That could mean a White House event, lots of press conferences and speeches, and a ton of media coverage. And, of course: all the provisions of the law take effect.

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