Politics

Democrats Eye Budget to Force Policy Changes, Testing Bounds of the Rules

WASHINGTON — Democrats in Congress plan to use their $3.5 trillion budget to try to unilaterally speed through a suite of far-reaching policy changes on immigration, labor and possibly voting rights over Republican opposition, leveraging their slim majorities in a bid to achieve much of President Biden’s agenda in one fell swoop.

The budget blueprint that Democrats plan to push through the Senate next week already envisioned one of the most ambitious legislative efforts ever undertaken by Congress, including huge federal investments into expanding social and environmental programs. But with their legislative options dwindling, Democrats have concluded in recent weeks that they want to push the boundaries of what the budget can accomplish, beyond mere dollars and cents.

Party leaders plan to include measures to create a path to citizenship for as many as eight million undocumented immigrants and to crack down on employers’ violating labor organizing rights. They are even weighing adding incentives for states to push states to expand ballot access. If they are successful, they could steamroll Republican opposition and enact those measures solely with Democratic votes, using a fast-track process known as reconciliation that shields legislation from a filibuster.

Doing so will not be easy. Reconciliation bills are subject to a strict set of rules about what can be included in the budget and what cannot. And with Republicans almost sure to be unanimously opposed, Democrats cannot afford to lose even a single vote.

Still, their determination to try amounts to an acknowledgment that their budget package could be the last major legislative vehicle to move through Congress under unified Democratic control.

“We have a lot of ambitious people who want to try a lot of different concepts,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat. “Some will undoubtedly qualify. Others will not.”

The reconciliation push has largely been eclipsed so far by the Senate’s drive to pass a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. But with senators moving toward a final vote on that bill as soon as this weekend, Democrats’ go-it-alone approach will soon take center stage on Capitol Hill.

Republicans have cried foul, accusing Democrats of trying to do an end-run around important legislative debates. They are gearing up to fight to have the immigration and labor provisions, among others, disqualified and are already publicly pummeling Democrats for what they call a “socialist” spending plan.

“It sounds like they are going to try to use this as one-stop shopping for their entire legislative agenda, much of which is an abuse of reconciliation,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican. “The American people will be very offended when they see what they are trying to do.”

The current Democratic majority is far from the first to try to use a reconciliation bill to enact major policy changes on a simple majority vote. Republicans, who have frequently turned to it to cut taxes, also used a reconciliation bill to pave the way for a long-stymied effort to open the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration. Democrats employed it to push final pieces of President Barack Obama’s health law over the finish line in 2010 and, earlier this year, to pass the $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus.

Under the rules of reconciliation, provisions must have a direct effect on spending or revenue to be included. Democratic officials say they believe their proposals meet that test. But the ultimate decision largely rests with Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate parliamentarian, who serves as the chamber’s arbiter of its own rules, and determines whether individual items can be included or thrown out as “incidental.”

Even if they fail in some areas, the approach allows them to show voters and activists who are exerting enormous pressure for them to act on core issues that they tried, essentially shifting blame onto Ms. MacDonough. Democrats tried to do just that in February when she barred the inclusion of a $15-an-hour minimum wage in the coronavirus package.

“The whole idea behind reconciliation is things are moving by bare majority, and it’s an exception to the cultural ethical norm that members of the Senate minority have some privileges not to be trifled with,” Alan S. Frumin, Ms. MacDonough’s predecessor, said in an interview. As such, the parliamentarian tries to weed out “abusive” provisions that are not “inherently budgetary,” Mr. Frumin said.

“Her nightmare — my nightmare — is what’s incidental,” he added.

The most significant proposal is one to legalize millions of unauthorized immigrants, a decades-old quest. Mr. Durbin is proposing granting legal status to people brought to the United States as children, known as Dreamers; immigrants who were granted Temporary Protected Status for humanitarian reasons; close to one million farmworkers; and millions more whom Democrats consider “essential workers.”

“If you’re wondering why we’ve turned to reconciliation, it’s because we’ve tried the usual route,” Mr. Durbin said, noting that Republicans have placed attacks on Mr. Biden’s immigration policies and the influx of migrants at the southwestern border at the center of their campaign to take back Congress in 2022.

Those attacks could spook moderate Democrats and force party leaders to scale back or abandon their efforts. Democrats are planning to include additional funding for border security to assuage some of those concerns.

But lawmakers are under intense pressure from immigrant advocates who say they must seize a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deal with the issue.

“Everyone recognizes reconciliation is the best chance to finally deliver,” said Kerri Talbot of the pro-immigrant group Immigration Hub.

Democrats say the changes would carry multibillion-dollar budgetary repercussions, affecting health care benefits, Medicaid spending and tax credits. They have also pointed to a precedent they say Republicans set in 2005, when they ran the Senate and included changes to immigration policy involving unused visas for high-skilled workers in a reconciliation package. Republicans are certain to object.

Mr. Frumin, the parliamentarian at the time, cautioned that he did not recall ruling on the proposal, and that therefore there was no binding precedent on the matter.

“To the extent that proponents of substantive immigration reform have pointed to that as the basis of optimism that they can prevail in this go-round, I think that is a very slender reed,” he said.

Democrats are in equally thorny discussions over how to proceed with labor provisions.

Progressives and labor groups are pushing for the party to include the entirety of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a measure that passed the House this spring but is stalled in the Senate in the face of Republican opposition. Perhaps the most significant expansion of labor rights since the New Deal era, the bill would neutralize right-to-work laws in 27 states, protect workers trying to unionize from retribution and empower the government to fine employers who violate workers’ rights. Several moderate Democratic senators, including Mark Warner of Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, do not support the bill in full, however.

Congressional aides familiar with the budget negotiations said it was more likely that Democrats would agree on a narrower set of priorities that they believe have a clear budgetary effect that could satisfy the reconciliation rules.

They include allocating as much as $1 billion for the National Labor Relations Board to ramp up enforcement of existing labor law after years of budget freezes and the creation of a first-of-its-kind $50,000 penalty to punish companies that commit unfair labor practices.

The Senate Finance Committee, which will spearhead broad changes to the federal tax code to pay for the bill, is also looking at ways to use credits, deductions and a possible excise tax to effectuate a similar outcome.

“Even though it’s not the whole thing, whatever provisions they can pass would be helpful to help workers enjoy the benefits of joining a union, which include higher wages, a safer workplace and much more likely to have a pension,” said Representative Robert C. Scott, Democrat of Virginia and the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee.

It is somewhat less clear whether Democrats will include the elections provisions under consideration, or what form they might take.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, is pushing to use the funding process to wade into the political and legislative battle over voting rights. Doing so would allow Democrats to partially sidestep Republican opposition that has stalled broader legislative attempts at putting in place new federal voting rights standards.

But the approach has strict limits. Ms. Klobuchar is calling for the federal government to provide funds for things like ballot drop boxes, paper ballots and voting machines, and to potentially attach strings to try to incentivize states to ease the path to voting. Democrats could not use the process to mandate that states change their laws, something that would have vastly more effect.

Ms. Klobuchar has been careful to note she does not see the idea as a replacement for those bills. But some Democrats are concerned that using the reconciliation process could take pressure off Congress to pass the broader elections legislation still pending before the Senate.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, for instance, has urged the party to keep its efforts tightly focused on existing legislation, according to a senior Democratic aide familiar with her views who was not authorized to discuss them.

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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