By Joshua C. Huder
The Senate passed a budget yesterday. It lacked some of the typical hallmarks of a budget resolution. Namely, the chamber did not debate in any great detail discretionary spending numbers. This budget is meant for one purpose and one purpose only: repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Following the campaign congressional Republicans set out on an ambitious path, planning to repeal the ACA within the first month of being in office. Therefore, the budget passed last night includes reconciliations instructions, which puts in motion a sequence of events that need to occur in rapid succession if they want to meet their self-imposed deadline. In the case of the ACA, this means instructing the Finance Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee to find at least $1 billion in savings (each) over a 10-year period, and to submit those bills by January 27th. Once those committees produce those bills, it will be introduced on the Senate floor to begin the non-filibusterable reconciliation process. Only a simple majority is needed to pass this legislation.
In the midst of this debate you’ve likely heard of several Republican senators concerned with this plan. Currently, at least four Senate Republican have echoed the President-Elect’s desire for a repeal-and-replace strategy. While the repeal piece of the plan is fairly straight forward (they already passed this legislation last year), the replace part of the plan has major obstacles. The most notable obstacle is the fact that Republicans have yet to produce a replacement bill. This takes a lot of time. The two Senate committees tasked with drafting and submitting repeal legislation are also responsible for providing guidance in a replacement bill, receiving input from experts, drafting that legislation, holding hearings, and potentially marking-up and reporting that legislation to the floor. Not to mention, all of this has to take place in the House as well. This takes a lot of time and there are only so many staff resources available.
At worst, they won’t be able to agree. At best, this likely takes well over two weeks, which means Republicans will miss their deadline. This is one reason Senators Corker (R-TN), Portman (R-OH), Collins (R-ME), Cassidy (R-LA), and Murkowski (R-AK) introduced an amendment to push back the reconciliation deadline from January 27th to March 3rd to allow more time for the Senate to consider replacement legislation. (They later withdrew the amendment.)
The good news for Republicans is that missing the deadline will not strip the reconciliation bill’s privileged status. That’s another way of saying it does not matter if they miss the January deadline. The eventual bill can still be brought up and is not filibusterable. In fact, this happened last year when Republicans missed their self-imposed deadline to repeal the ACA in July 2015. The bill was not even introduced until October and was not passed by both chambers until January 2016. It’s also possible that Republicans move forward on the FY2018 budget, which will likely include reconciliation instructions for tax reform, entitlement spending, and other fiscal priorities, without affecting the FY2017 instructions to repeal the ACA.
If you’re confused by Congress’s disregard for their own deadlines, that’s okay. It's confusing. It’s also pretty normal for Congress; a tradition of sorts. Regardless, the budget the Senate passed, though not a law, carries enormous weight and importance, even if they blow past their ambitious deadline.
Joshua C. Huder, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute.