Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said Sunday that Democrats will move pass a COVID-19 relief package through reconciliation, a special process that allows for a 51-majority vote, rather than the 60 votes normally required to advance legislation, if Republicans do not quickly express support for the $1.9 trillion bill.
Sanders, the incoming chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said in an appearance on CNN’s "State of the Union" that unlike Republicans who used reconciliation to pass a tax cut bill and attempt to repeal Obamacare, Democrats will use 50 votes in the Senate, plus Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote, to "pass legislation desperately needed by working families in this country right now."
"If Republicans are willing to work with us to address that crisis, welcome – let’s do it. But what we cannot do is wait weeks and weeks and months to go forward. We’ve got to act now. That's what the American people want," Sanders told CNN anchor Dana Bash.
"These are major policy changes, and I criticized Republicans for using reconciliation to give tax breaks to billions to create a situation where large profitable corporations now pay zero in federal income taxes. Yes, I did criticize them for that," Sanders said. "And if they want to criticize me for helping to feed children who are hungry – or senior citizens who are isolated and alone and don’t have enough food, they can criticize me. I think it’s the appropriate step forward."
Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, said the Senate must break through the "old approach" that it could take years to get anything done, arguing that, "we don't have time to sit around weeks on impeachment and not get vaccines into the arms of people."
"We can chew bubble gum and walk at the same time. The American people are hurting and they want us to act. That's what our candidates ran for in this election," Sanders said, claiming that’s why Democrats narrowly won back the Senate. "That’s what the guys in Georgia won on and we have got to reaffirm the faith in the American people in government that we can respond to their pain."
Reconciliation provides a fast-track process to consider bills to implement the policy choices embodied in the annual congressional budget resolution. Unlike other bills, reconciliation bills cannot be stalled by a filibuster and only need a simple majority in the Senate, instead of the usual 60-vote supermajority.
That means in the currently divided 50-50 Senate, the newly sworn-in Harris would cast the tie-breaking 51st vote to give Democrats the slimmest majority. Special rules have been designed to protect the rights of the minority party.
Sanders has signaled a willingness to pass legislation without GOP support by using this special process that's reserved for tax and fiscal matters. The first test could be Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief legislation that is the first priority for the new Democratic administration.
Biden's COVID-19 proposal also includes a provision to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, vaccine funding, money for schools and state and local governments -- priorities that may not fit into budget reconciliation rules. Democrats may be required to pick up GOP votes or compromise for a smaller package that has bipartisan support.
During the 115th Congress, Republicans used reconciliation twice to pursue their policy goals, according to a House Committee on the Budget report published in October 2020.
In the final months of 2017, the House and Senate approved a reconciliation measure to cut taxes for many Americans and corporations and to eliminate the penalty for not having health insurance. The Congressional Budget Office estimated at the time that the legislation would add $1.5 trillion to federal deficits over 10 years, which has been revised to $1.9 trillion. President Trump signed this legislation into law on Dec. 22, 2017.
Earlier in that same year, Republicans attempted to use reconciliation to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. The House approved a reconciliation measure to repeal major provisions of the health care law and cap federal funding for Medicaid, but the Senate failed to get the needed votes to advance a bill.
Fox News' Marisa Schultz contributed to this report.