For congressionalphiles, there is nothing sexier than a well-crafted budget reconciliation measure.
This week, the House and Senate will vote on budget reconciliation measures in an effort to make it slightly easier for President Biden to sign a nearly $2 trillion COVID-19 relief package, all without any assistance from the Republicans.
For those of us who love Congress, but not necessarily the arcane rules that govern each chamber, procedures and rules — like reconciliation — often induce a headache or two.
Fortunately for journalists (and staffers and lawmakers) procedural headaches can be preempted with the help of rare individuals like Eric Ueland – my guest on this week’s episode of Article One with Molly Hooper.
Ueland helps decipher what-the-heck-is-going-on-in-the-Senate, explains how a 50-50 Senate can operate, and clarifies the whole budget reconciliation process and how it works. He also lifts the curtain on White House/Congress relations and law-making.
During his career, Ueland has held many high-ranking positions in the nation’s capital city – in both public and private sectors. But, his experience as former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), former staff director of the Senate Budget Committee, and former White House Legislative Affairs Director for President Donald Trump, feature most prominently in our Article One conversation on the branch of government.
In my early days reporting on the Senate, a body that operates by “unanimous consent,” Ueland was one of the first people I searched out for answers to thorny and convoluted questions on procedural shenanigans.
And I wasn’t alone.
The long-time GOP operative’s reputation as a Senate historian/parliamentarian/policy strategist, with the skill to patiently explain operations and procedures, made Ueland the go-to guy for confused reporters, staffers and lawmakers.
We spoke the last week of January, and I’m sure you will find the answers to all those questions swirling around in your head!
With constituents hurting, in need of economic relief, moderate GOP and Democratic lawmakers have varying degrees of optimism that a fifth COVID relief package will be enacted before Election Day.
New York Democratic Rep. Anthony Brindisi is pressing leaders in both parties to return to the negotiating table.
Last week, amidst the wild swings of on/off negotiations between the White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif), New York Dem Rep. Anthony Brindisi said he would “remain optimistic.”
We spoke the day after President Trump tweeted to “stop all negotiations until after the election.” (See below for the ups/downs of the COVID relief talks.)
“We all know how much (President Trump) loves the stock market and when he sees those numbers going down and he sees that reaction to his statement yesterday, I think he has got to take a pause for a second and say maybe my comment wasn’t such a good idea … we’ve got to get back to the negotiating table,” Brindisi told Article One.
Brindisi’s prediction proved prescient because a short-time later, President Trump pivoted from ending negotiations to offering a $1.8/1.9 trillion COVID relief package.
The White House’s new offer of $1.8 trillion for a relief deal moves closer to the House Democrats’ demand for $2.2 trillion. For weeks, President Trump would not budge from his $1.6 trillion top-line number.
But, the Senate Republicans are not quite there yet. As of this writing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) intends to hold a vote on a smaller package next week – challenging Senate Democrats to filibuster the relief bill, as they did in September.
The numbers are still far apart, so why are lawmakers optimistic?
House and Senate office switchboards are lighting up: industries (including the airlines), individuals, local governments, all have been hard hit by the COVID crisis and lawmakers are hearing about it at home in the districts.
Arizona Rep. David Schweikert explained that some industries in his Phoenix/Scottsdale area district “are doing remarkably well but there’s a lot that are not: take a look at our hotels and our tourism, some of the restaurants that cater to that population have been just brutalized.”
“I’m hoping we can step up and stop this crazy impasse of everything or nothing and help them. … I’m inherently really optimistic: I’m 58 (years old) my wife’s 58 (years old) and we have a five-year-old.”
Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.)
Moderates, especially lawmakers locked in tough re-election battles, are open to making a deal and getting relief back to the districts.
Shortly before heading back to her central Virginia district, Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger said “all options are on the table if it helps get support to the folks who need it. … I’m ever the optimist.”
Moderate GOP Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon, “wasn’t optimistic” that a deal would come together before Election Day but was insistent that without help, certain industries won’t come back.
Bacon said that his Omaha-based district is doing a little better than the rest of the country in terms of jobs lost/gained but the city still has “niche industries that are on their backs and they’re going to die.”
With the on again/off again developments (or lack of developments) in the negotiations, I went back to check-in with the moderates to make sure that they still believe a package could come together soon.
Rep. Brindisi has redoubled his efforts to get both sides to the negotiation table yet has been disturbed by the comments made by GOP and Democratic leaders, a source close to Brindisi told me.
Consider this: the four lawmakers I spoke with represent swing districts – these people are moderates who are running for reelection in very tight contests, according to the non-partisan Cook Political Report.
In order to get rehired by their constituents, these vulnerable members must answer the needs of their constituents. Leaders realize how important it is for these lawmakers to get rehired … re-elected by the voters.
Again – whether it will come together is a separate matter. But for lawmakers – GOP and Democratic – in swing districts – getting a win for a fifth COVID relief measure is very important … and leaders in both parties are feeling the pressure.
At this point, it is unclear what will happen. With little more than 20 days until Nov. 3, the clock is running out.
So how did we get here?
The ups and downs, on again/off again negotiations
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have taken the lead in negotiations to reach a fifth COVID related relief package.
In mid-September the negotiations ground to a standstill with Dems demanding a $3-4 trillion measure (which the House passed in May) while The White House called that number a non-starter. Senate Republicans favored a smaller $500 billion measure.
At that time, the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus stepped in with an effort to shake things up – introducing a general framework of a deal supported by 25 Republican and 25 Democratic House members.
Spanberger, Brindisi and Bacon are all members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group formed to “inspire negotiators to return to the table.” They helped to craft and sell the “March to Common Ground: Bipartisan COVID Relief Framework” to the various member House caucuses, reaching out to senators as well.
Key lawmakers on both sides of the aisle approached the idea cautiously, as Spanberger explained during our interview.
However, as the Washington Post’s Erica Werner reported in the last week of September, Speaker Pelosi and Democratic leaders offered a “scaled down” HEROES Act with a $2.2 trillion price tag.
The White House responded with a $1.6 trillion package. Still, both sides engaged in daily discussions, continuing their negotiations even after the House passed the HEROES Act 2.0 on Oct. 1.
Ensuring Speaker Pelosi did not to send her rank-and-file home for the recess empty-handed, the House passed a $2.2 trillion in COVID related spending package that included money for stimulus checks, unemployment insurance, small business grants, local and state first responders, testing and tracing and schools.
Still, eighteen Democratic lawmakers, including Brindisi and Spanberger, opposed the package, calling it a partisan exercise.
On that same day, the White House revealed that President Trump had COVID-19.
As members departed Capitol Hill, both parties still believed a deal would be struck, according to various reporting and sources I spoke to who are familiar with the discussions.
Especially since House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) let members know they could be called back to D.C. on 24 hours notice, to vote on a negotiated relief package.
Several days later however, President Trump seemed to end the negotiations.
On Oct. 6th the President tweeted:
But soon, as Rep. Brindisi predicted, President Trump reconsidered his “stop negotiating until after the election,” statement.
By the end of the week, the White House upped the amount of the relief deal to $1.8 trillion. Some Democrats, including progressive Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), seemed willing, but Nancy Pelosi was still arguing for more.
In a conference call with her Democratic colleagues, Pelosi said xxx, according to a source on the call.
In the meantime, some Senate Republicans balked/are balking at a $1.8 trillion price tag and want to try to pass their own smaller package.
Sen GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says the Senate will try to vote on such a package next week. When McConnell tried to vote on a $500 billion COVID relief package last month, Senate Democrats refused to allow the chamber to vote on it.
The posturing by President Trump and Speaker Pelosi belie the reality: both parties need a win on COVID relief.
The challenge remains: IF the White House strikes a deal with Pelosi … will that deal pass in the Senate.
Covering Congress for as long as I have, anything can happen in 20 days, including the passage of a fifth COVID relief bill.