Speed-through stimulus checks? Here’s how Democrats are fast-tracking the COVID-19 relief bill – CNET

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What’s budget reconciliation? We’ll explain how House and Senate Democrats are using the tool to pass Biden’s relief bill, over opposition.


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Looking to speed up the arrival of the third stimulus check for those who will qualify for the next payment, congressional Democrats are using a powerful budgeting tool to quickly push President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan through the House and Senate, bypassing any Republican opposition to the bill. If the budgeting move is successful, the IRS could start sending a third stimulus check that’s shaping up to be worth $1,400 as soon as the end of March.

The details of the legislative process, called budget reconciliation, can get confusing quickly, and the rules for what can and can’t be covered by the process are complicated. We’ll do our best to break down what it is and how it could work. Because of the 50/50 split between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate (with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote), Democrats are looking to budget reconciliation to avoid resistance to the COVID-19 relief package.

We’ll explain how using the budget reconciliation process would make it possible to pass the stimulus bill — and therefore approve the next stimulus check — in both the House and Senate with just a simple majority of votes, and why Democrats see it as critical to the outcome of a Senate vote. Here’s how it works and what’s happening now. This story has been updated with new information.

What is budget reconciliation?

Budget reconciliation is a parliamentary tool Congress can use to quickly advance the passage of legislation. The reconciliation can start with the House and Senate budget committees, before the budget moves to a vote. 

Budget reconciliation needs a simple majority to pass instead of the normal 60 votes required to approve spending or revenue legislation. The bill also can’t be tied up with a filibuster, where a senator can use a variety of foot-dragging tactics to block or delay a bill.

Because it can be used to pass fiscal legislation that may not have bipartisan support, the budget reconciliation process comes with strict guidelines about how it can be used and how often Congress can use it. 

First, it can be used just for legislation that changes federal spending, revenues and debt limits, like Biden’s COVID-19 stimulus package. Something called the Byrd rule — named after former West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd — prevents items that don’t fit into one of those three budget categories from being included. 

Second, the Senate can consider only one reconciliation per year for each of the budget categories: spending, revenue and debt. Because Congress didn’t adopt a budget resolution in 2020 for the 2021 budget, this year’s Congress may have two opportunities to use the tool, once now and once again in the fall when it adopts a budget to fund the government.


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Why is budget reconciliation key to the Senate vote?

Since a bill must be approved in the House and Senate before it can become law, the ease of doing so depends either on which party retains the majority or whether the bill in question has enough bipartisan support to pass with a majority.

With the Senate split evenly, it would take 17 Republican senators to vote yes for the bill to pass. That isn’t seen as likely, which would draw out negotiations and quite possibly dramatically alter the bill in the process. Using budget reconciliation could keep the bill largely as is, and approve it faster — a win for Democrats and Biden.

On Feb. 19, Senate Majority Chuck Schumer said by using budget reconciliation, Congress will be able to “send a robust $1.9 trillion package to the president’s desk before the March 14.”

What wouldn’t be included in budget reconciliation?

Not everything Biden wants to accomplish would meet the requirements for reconciliation. Boosting the minimum wage to $15 may fall outside the requirements, although the latest version of the House bill — which is called the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 — includes the wage hike. Likewise, using the process to fund reopening schools may be outside the limits of the tool.

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Biden is working to get more economic aid out as quickly as possible.


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How budget reconciliation has been used before

Congress has successfully used the reconciliation process just 21 times since 1980, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The most recent use of the budget reconciliation process was under former President Donald Trump, when Congress used the tool to pass the administration’s tax cuts in 2017. During the presidency of Barack Obama, Congress used the process to amend the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

For more on the next stimulus package, here’s where things stand on Biden’s proposal, what you need to know about stimulus checks and what’s happening with federal unemployment assistance.

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