Although rarely in the spotlight, Elizabeth MacDonough, who has held the parliamentarian post since 2012, has quickly emerged as a powerful behind-the-scenes figure in the 50-50 Senate, with the potential power to deliver a death knell to Democratic endeavors to finagle the party's signature policy legislation through their razor-thin Senate edge via technical rules. She has vexed both Republicans and Democrats in the past, prompting some on the Left to sound the alarm that her power should be reduced.
“The Senate needs to step up, override the parliamentarian, OK. The parliamentarian is not elected. It is not an elected position, and the parliamentarian has been overridden and dismissed in the past,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) demanded last year after MacDonough ruled against the Democrats on immigration.
At the time, some Democrats were exploring the prospects of passing a pathway for citizenship for illegal immigrants through a Senate process known as reconciliation. They will be navigating the same process this weekend on their quest to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, so long as MacDonough doesn't shoot them down again.
MacDonough's job is to ensure that the Senate complies with its rules. While she has the power to shut down certain types of legislation, some Democrats, such as Rep. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), believe senators can overrule her if need be. The idea is that Democrats can proceed with legislation she rules against unless Republicans raise a budget point of order during attempts to pass a bill, Warnock told Roll Call.
“The parliamentarian can’t block this ultimately. Only the Senate can,” Warnock said. “At the end of the day, the only way this doesn't happen is if someone on the other side raises an objection. And I think that would be quite unfortunate.”
About 20 years ago, Republicans had fired a parliamentarian during a dispute over a ruling, so it would not entirely be unprecedented to oust her.
MacDonough ascended to the post in 2012 after being appointed by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), becoming the first female parliamentarian in the history of the United States. She had served in the parliamentarian's office since the late 1990s. MacDonough continued serving as parliamentarian when Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) helmed the Senate.
Throughout her tenure, she has bucked Republicans and Democrats alike and navigated the Senate through tense proceedings such as both impeachments of former President Donald Trump. Between 2015 and 2017, she quashed various GOP attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Nevertheless, she has managed to earn bipartisan praise, including from Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and John Cornyn (R-TX).
The parliamentarian's role is particularly pronounced as Democrats eye the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act because they lack the votes to overcome the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome the filibuster, which Republicans are certain to deploy to stymie enactment.
Reconciliation permits the Senate to bypass the filibuster and pass bills with a simple majority when considering certain types of fiscal legislation, such as budgetary matters. However, there are a number of strict rules that govern this process, including the Byrd Rule, which prohibits provisions unrelated to the budget and generally requires laws passed through reconciliation to be deficit-neutral after 10 years.
MacDonough had cited the Byrd Rule when she threw cold water on Democratic musings about passing immigration reform through reconciliation last year and when she canned the minimum wage hike attached to a COVID-19 relief bill. She has been holding meetings with Democratic and Republican senators while evaluating the climate and healthcare spending bill for Byrd Rule violations.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office surmised that the so-called Inflation Reduction Act would reduce the federal budget deficit by $102 billion over 10 years. The legislation contains roughly $64 billion worth of spending on healthcare and $369 in climate and energy initiatives, per the CBO. That part would likely comply with the deficit requirements in the Byrd Rule, but the law also contains a myriad of tax and healthcare reforms.
It's the healthcare provisions in particular that have some progressives worrying they could face another round of heartbreak from the parliamentarian, according to Politico. The bill would enable Medicare to negotiate drug prices, repeal a Trump-era drug rebate rule enacted, and require drugmakers to give rebates on certain products whose prices rise faster than inflation.
If those provisions are stricken, due to the Byrd Rule, Democrats could run into trouble with the deficit requirements as savings from the drug price reform were intended to offset other expenses in the bill.
Democrats have long pursued the passage of a reconciliation bill in the Senate to address climate and social spending issues, but it had been bucked by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) for months. Late last month, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Manchin revealed they reached an agreement on a water-down proposal. Sinema signed off on the measure Thursday after securing a few modifications.
Schumer said he intends to bring the legislation up for a vote on Saturday.
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