The Senate is either famous or infamous, depending on whom you ask, for requiring 60 votes to end a filibuster and pass legislation. But when it comes to money, there’s one way to get things done with a simple majority: budget reconciliation.
Reconciliation allows budget measures to pass with just 51 votes. It was created by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 and therefore can be used only for bills that directly apply to spending, taxes, and debt limits.
“It’s been used by both political parties over time. It’s complicated. And there is what’s called a vote-athon before it all happens, and anybody can offer any amendments,” former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said.
“Vote-athons,” or “vote-a-ramas,” usually last all night. Senators vote on hundreds of amendments (509 amendments were considered for the American Rescue Plan). But there’s a catch: Amendments need the Senate parliamentarian’s approval. The parliamentarian determines if amendments are directly related to the budget.
“The Byrd rule prohibits non-budget issues from being considered during that discussion. So this is about tax cuts, tax increases, it’s about spending cuts or increases,” Dorgan said.
West Virginia’s Robert C. Byrd was the longest serving senator in history. He largely shaped the process, so to find out if an amendment is allowed, it’s subject to a “Byrd bath.”
“Will it fit? Will I be able to offer it? If so, you get a yes. But if not, you get a Byrd bath and you’re washed away,” Dorgan explained.
Democrats used budget reconciliation to pass the American Rescue Plan in 2021. The COVID-19 relief bill was President Biden’s first major piece of legislation. Republicans did the same with the Trump tax cuts in 2017. Both were controversial, and there are economists who say both did just as much harm as good.
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