Late Monday evening, the Senate took a vote to suspend the debt ceiling. With zero GOP support, the bill failed and the deadline for a partial shutdown now looms large. The only way to avoid the September 30 shutdown is to pass a continuing resolution (CR) that will buy a little more time. Democrats have tied the debt ceiling increase directly to the CR, which could be a win for Team Biden. For Republicans, however, this could be spun into an opportunity: “Democrats, you can have your debt ceiling increase – if you’re willing to pay the price.”
If the budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 isn’t passed by Sept. 30 – the final day of FY2021 – then the federal government will run out of money. That’s right; the party ends Oct. 1 – unless, of course, Congress can at least agree on a temporary fix to kick the can down the road just a bit. Cue the CR, which – if passed – would fund the government through Dec. 16. On Dec. 17, that shutdown is still going to happen if the nation’s lawmakers don’t buckle down and get it done by then, either in the form of a full budget or at least another CR.
The current CR proposal made it through the House easily, but there should have never been any doubt that it would. The Democratic Party has eight more seats in the House of Representatives than the GOP. For one of their bills to fail, eight Democrats would have to refuse to toe the party line. The Senate is an entirely different story. Since legislation requires 60 “aye” votes to pass – assuming the filibuster is used, and, of course, it almost always is. Without the so-called nuclear option, there’s only one other way for a majority party to get bills through – and, even then, only if they’re budget related: reconciliation. And that’s where things get interesting.
The purpose of budget reconciliation is to allow Congress to change existing law to make spending and revenue conform to the goals established by the annual budget. Since there’s only one annual budget, traditionally this process has been limited to once per fiscal year. In April, however, the Senate parliamentarian changed the rules – or at least how the rules are interpreted. Now there are potentially two reconciliation uses per fiscal year.
Democrats burned through that first use – at the time it was still the only one – to force the American Rescue Plan through by a razor-thin majority of 50-49 back in March. If Republicans continue to refuse to support the CR to fund the government into December, Democrats are left with a choice: Burn that final remaining FY2021 reconciliation to get this through or let the government shut down knowing – and, more importantly, with the voters knowing – that there was another way.
So with FY2021 ending on Sept. 30, the Democrats either have to use that second reconciliation on something or lose it – how’s that a big deal? The original plan was to force through Biden’s $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” spending package. But if the Democrats can muster 100% participation in their ranks, they can use this last reconciliation of the year to avoid shutdown and then come back next week and use the first reconciliation of FY2022 to pass the 2,465-page behemoth of a spending bill for which that second chance was intended.
Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV), who have both opposed recent partisan bills for, among other issues, the lack of GOP input, can hardly be relied upon to always toe the line. However, of all the legislation they’re likely to stand behind even without bipartisan support, a CR to avoid shutdown seems the most likely.
Wait, so Democrats can have their cake and eat it, too? Absolutely – if they think it’s worth it. That would prevent the shutdown this week and accomplish one of Biden’s greatest legislative goals as early as next week – and leave the government only temporarily funded by a CR through Dec. 16 but with a single reconciliation left in FY2022.
Will Democrats burn that last chance before the midterms to keep the government funded? If they do, the Biden legislative agenda grinds to a halt during the most crucial months before the 2022 elections. And what’s the alternative: that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) keeps it in his pocket through a government shutdown that he could have easily avoided? Neither option looks good for the Democrats come Election Day 2022. So, yes, Democrats can get their debt ceiling increase and human infrastructure, but it’ll cost ‘em – if Republicans play their cards right.
~ Read more from James Fite.