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More than Chuck Schumer's oft-touted ability to work across the aisle and the fortune of Senate Majority Leader Joe Biden for holding together his democratic colleagues, the fate of Democrats' massive infrastructure plans may depend on a person relatively unknown outside the Beltway: the Senate parliamentarian.
The fate of the$ 2 trillion infrastructure plan to upgrade roads and bridges, combat climate change and repair airports will most likely fall to the ruling of Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, the arbiter of what is and is not allowed under the Senate's arcane rules. If MacDonough, a lawyer who has been in the Parliamentarian's office since 1999 and serving in the top job since 2012, says Democrats are playing too fast and loose with a procedural loophole, she could pretty much shut down their ambition to pass this huge piece of legislation with a bare majority of 50 plus Vice President Kamala Harris.
If she gives it the greenlight, then they can narrowly open the door for future legislation without fear of rule debris on this and perhaps big ambitions. MacDonough asked Schumer for her permission last week, and a ruling is expected at any time. Officially, Republicans say they want to piece together an infrastructure package that could win every Democratic vote and 10 more from the Democrats.
Doing so would let them shepherd the legislation through the regular process. But the remaining option is for Democrats to pass a procedural backflip that lets them pass legislation through the 100-person Senate with a simple majority, even though Mitch McConnell was pretty much shut down this path last week. Known as budget reconciliation, the trickery was used to pass pieces of Obamacare, repeal the Donald Trump- and George W. Bush- tax cuts and Biden's pandemic bill. There are limits to what can be shoehorned into legislation passing through the eye of this needle, and MacDonough is the last word on what these limits are.
The lawmakers ca n't load up the legislation with unrelated pieces, which is why Sen. Ron Johnson's attempt to drag onto the 2017 tax cuts a voting option of allowing churches to endorse candidates fell off. Similarly, measures passed this way ca n't saddle future budgets- usually 10 years away- with red ink, which is why the Bush tax cuts were designed to expire in 2010. How would you phrase it: Finally, bills like this ca n't touch social security, meaning they ca n't hijack seniors pensions to build a railway station. McConnell is perceived as a Middle-Wide Institutionalist, neither MacDonough nor Schumer have cast her as a partisan hack; her decisions are widely seen as Down-to-Hidden verdicts. She has angered partisans of both teams with her rulings, but their calls have mostly been seen as rational and justified.
And, in the rare case when she thinks she's strayed, she admitted error. The Senate, of course, can vote to ignore its own in-house rule wonk with a 60 majority, but that is not expected to happen. Nor is it likely that Harris, as the presiding president of the Senate, would unilaterally overrule the parliamentarian for the first time since 1975. As Democrats start to turn Biden's wishlist into actual legislation, they will need to exercise aggressive care to not overreach for MacDonough to allow them to pass a legislative package using a reconciliation that includes broadband, veterans' health and a slimmed-down version of the Green New Deal.
For now, MacDonough can only wait and try to anticipate Washington's next move. What matters in Washington?
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