Incoming chair of the Senate Budget Committee has big plans

With their wins in Georgia earlier this month, Democrats will now be in control of a 50-50 Senate and that means Senator Bernie Sanders will become the Chair of the Senate Budget Committee. The NY Times reports Sanders is already chomping at the bit to make some “aggressive” moves. Just how aggressive will be part of an ongoing debate between Sanders and the Biden administration but, unfortunately, Sanders can bypass the threat of a filibuster through the use of budget reconciliation:

“I believe that the crisis is of enormous severity and we’ve got to move as rapidly as we can,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview.

“Underline the word aggressive,” he said. “Start out there.”

Despite Democrats’ narrow control of the Senate, Mr. Sanders is expected to exert heavy influence over taxes, health care, climate change and several other domestic issues. That is because his role as budget chairman will give him control over a little-known but incredibly powerful congressional tool that allows certain types of legislation to win Senate approval with just a simple majority.

That tool — a budget mechanism called reconciliation — allows Congress to move some legislation without gaining 60 votes.

Sanders’ first goal is a new stimulus package with more direct payments larger than the $600 ones that were just passed. But beyond that, Sanders tells the Times he plans to test the limits of how reconciliation can be used to address “structural problems in American society.”

Even using reconciliation, Democrats still need a simple majority in the Senate to pass things. That means they either need an undivided caucus including folks like Sen. Joe Manchin or they need to pick up Republican votes. They may be able to do that occasionally with Sen. Murkowski or Sen. Collins on certain votes but I don’t think they are going to be able to pass Medicare for All or some version of the Green New Deal that way. Anything Sanders has in mind that has a price tag in the trillions is going to be a heavy lift for this Senate. There’s no specific mention of college debt forgiveness in this Times story but I wonder if that’s one they might try to push through.

And don’t forget that the House is also a tighter squeeze than it was before. Speaker Pelosi is down to a 10 vote advantage (it’ll be nine if Claudia Tenney eventually wins in NY-22) so she can’t afford a lot of defections from House moderates either.

Sanders is clearly looking to raise taxes and effectively undo the Trump tax cuts. I’m sure he and others will argue that higher taxes are necessary to fund all the spending they plan to do on other things. But imposing (or reimposing) a bunch of new taxes while the economy is still on life support seems guaranteed to delay and drag out the recovery. I’m guessing we won’t hear much about that from elected Democrats but that’s something that could resonate with regular people. After months of being in lockdown, we don’t need to do anything else at this point to slow the process of getting the country back to work.