What is 'reconciliation,' and why is it holding up the infrastructure package?

Ella Lee
USA TODAY
  • Reconciliation is a special process that essentially makes it easier for legislation to pass the Senate.
  • Reconciliation bills cannot be filibustered; they can be passed by a simple majority.
  • Some Democrats say they won’t fall in line on the bipartisan infrastructure bill without the promise of a reconciliation bill addressing "human infrastructure."

Amid talks of compromise on a bipartisan infrastructure deal, some Democrats say they won’t fall in line without the promise of another piece of legislation on President Joe Biden’s desk. 

“There won't be an infrastructure bill unless we have a reconciliation bill. Plain and simple,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday, threatening to withhold a House vote on the deal until the Senate sends the president a bill focused on “human infrastructure,” too.   

In the case of this bill, “reconciliation” isn’t synonymous with making peace. Here’s a look at what the congressional process of reconciliation entails and why it’s making headlines. 

What is reconciliation?

Reconciliation is a special process that essentially makes it easier for legislation to pass the Senate. The process allows for tax, spending and debt limit bills to be expedited by side-stepping typical congressional hold-ups. 

The reconciliation process can be undertaken only if the House and Senate agree on a budget resolution that includes “reconciliation directives” for committees first, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The directives instruct the committees to “prepare and report” legislation by a specified date that does one or a mix of the following, according to the CBPP: increases or decreases spending by specified amounts over an allotted time; increases or decreases revenue by specified amounts over an allotted time; or modifies the public debt limit. In other words, the directives let legislators know how much room they have to spend more or spend less with each budget.

Budget resolutions cannot be filibustered and are not sent to the president to be signed into law. Reconciliation bills bring forth laws that reflect the priorities laid out in the budget resolution. 

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Like budget resolutions, reconciliation bills cannot be filibustered. So, instead of needing 60 votes, these bills can be passed by a simple majority. 

Since the Senate is split 50-50 down party lines – and Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote – reconciliation would allow Senate Democrats to land a tax and spending bill on Biden’s desk without any Republican support. 

How has it been used – and what keeps it from being abused? 

Reconciliation was established in the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Since 1980, when the process was first used, Congress has sent 26 reconciliation bills to the president; 22 measures were enacted and four were vetoed, according to a Congressional Research Service report. Most recently, reconciliation was used to pass Republicans’ tax plan in 2017 and this year’s American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

In its first years of use, the process primarily approved spending cuts, but shortly after, the bills came to include seemingly irrelevant policies. For example, one reconciliation act reduced the number of members of the Federal Communications Commission and the Interstate Commerce Commission, according to the CRS report. 

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The late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., viewed these deviations as abuses of power. He proposed a rule to curb the practice of including extraneous provisions in reconciliation bills. 

“We are in the process now of seeing ... the Pandora’s box which has been opened to the abuse of the reconciliation process,” Byrd said when proposing the rule. “...If the budget reform process is going to be preserved, and more importantly if we are going to preserve the deliberative process in this U.S. Senate – which is the outstanding, unique element with respect to the U.S. Senate – action must be taken now to stop this abuse of the budget process.”

The rule, dubbed the “Byrd Rule,” was codified in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 in 1990, according to the CRS report. 

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 24: President Joe Biden (C), joined by from left to right, Sen Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), Sen Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Sen Mitt Romney (R-UT), speaks after the bipartisan group of Senators reached a deal on an infrastructure package at the White House on June 24, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden said both sides made compromises on the nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Biden was joined by,  . (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775672000 ORIG FILE ID: 1325284234

Why is it relevant right now?

The bipartisan infrastructure package is teetering on the brink of potential collapse – and whether it will has to do mostly with whether a reconciliation bill will be tied to its passage. 

In his remarks announcing that he and a bipartisan group of 21 senators reached a would-be deal on infrastructure, Biden indicated he wouldn’t sign the package without a reconciliation bill addressing “human infrastructure” also on his desk.

"If they don't (both) come, I'm not signing it. Real simple," Biden said. 

Republicans said the comments “blindsided” them, throwing the infrastructure compromise into question. Biden later walked back that statement, saying that it was “not his intent” to threaten a veto on the infrastructure package. 

More:Biden walks back veto threat of infrastructure deal amid intense pushback from Republicans

"The bottom line is this: I gave my word to support the infrastructure plan, and that’s what I intend to do," he said.

But progressives aren’t impressed, and without them, the infrastructure deal remains in murky waters. 

“Let me be clear: There will not be a bipartisan infrastructure deal without a reconciliation bill that substantially improves the lives of working families and combats the existential threat of climate change,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tweeted Sunday. “No reconciliation bill, no deal. We need transformative change NOW.”