What Is the “Reconciliation” Bill, and Could It Kill Infrastructure?

Earlier this week, we looked at the path toward bipartisan infrastructure legislation over the past two years — one in which the House Problem Solvers Caucus and No Labels Senate allies played key roles. A bill has now passed the Senate and is set for a House vote by September 27. But separate arcane legislative procedure could still stand in its way.

Democratic leaders have sought to link the infrastructure bill with a much larger $3.5 trillion social spending and climate measure. The reason is simple: The two-party infrastructure bill is very popular; the one-party spending bill is less so. The leaders are essentially holding infrastructure hostage, telling reluctant legislators that they must either swallow the budget-busting bill, or go home with nothing.

Speaker Pelosi wanted to hold up infrastructure until the bigger bill was also ready for a vote. A group of House Democrats led by Problem Solvers Co-Chair Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) forced the leadership’s hand. Pelosi gave in and committed “to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill by September 27.”

It seems like that should mean victory on infrastructure — but it might not. The House Progressive Caucus — which supports the infrastructure spending — has nonetheless threatened to kill that bill unless the larger bill “[is] moved simultaneously.”

There is nothing officially “linking” the two bills. Both will get their own votes. But the timing of the votes is crucial: If the larger bill can come up first, progressives will push the Democratic caucus to accept it, lest they withhold their own votes on infrastructure.

That bigger bill is being advanced through a process called reconciliation, which has been successfully used 21 times since its creation under the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. Reconciliation basically expedites consideration of certain tax and spending legislation — and it can pass the Senate with a simple majority, and not be subject to a filibuster that would take 60 votes to break. It is expected any reconciliation bill this year would get a 50-50 vote in the evenly divided Senate, with Vice President Harris breaking the tie to pass it.

While reconciliation was initially used mainly for deficit reduction, it has increasingly been used as a tool to increase spending and cut taxes. Reuters says it now amounts to “an instrument for the Senate majority to ram through legislative priorities over minority opposition.”

This time, it’s not even clear what is being rammed through. A few weeks ago, the Senate simply voted along party lines to authorize a budget resolution that allows the creation of a reconciliation bill with up to $3.5 trillion in spending. Senators have set a target date of September 15 to submit actual proposals within that limit.

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) voted to permit the reconciliation bill to go forward, but both Manchin and Sinema have said they are unlikely to actually back a $3.5 trillion measure. Manchin wrote in the WSJ this week that amid concerns about rising inflation and the risks of further spending, “Congress should hit a strategic pause on the budget-reconciliation legislation” altogether.

In the weeks ahead, senators will define their requests and try to whittle it down to something all 50 Democrats can support. (Pelosi has said she will not move on reconciliation in the House until it is clear it can pass the Senate.)

Can supporters of the reconciliation bill get all this done before September 27? The answer to that question may determine whether the popular infrastructure bill will stand on its own — or be bound to a one-party spending push.