A tool that won’t be available in 2011

A TOOL THAT WON’T BE AVAILABLE IN 2011…. The Democrats’ House majority is the biggest in about 20 years, and the Dems’ Senate majority is the biggest in three decades, but the legislative process has been anything but easy. Next year will almost certainly be worse.

It didn’t generate a lot of attention, but two weeks ago, the House voted 215 to 210 to approve a “budget enforcement resolution,” which is sort of like passing a budget, but not entirely. As Ezra explained recently, “It does the main work of the budget, which is telling the appropriators how much money they have to spend, but it includes few details beyond that. The absence of those specifics means House Democrats aren’t voting for a budget with a trillion-plus-dollar deficit, which is a vote they don’t want to take, and it spares the House leadership the trouble of navigating the normal budget-related squabbles.”

The rationale is probably obvious — House Dems are nervous enough, and saw a budget fight with a huge deficit as a sure loser in a tough election environment — but the consequences are probably less well known.

Annie Lowrey explains today that with no budget, there will be no Senate reconciliation efforts next year.

While the distinction between an enforcement resolution and a full budget is largely technical, there is one crucial difference: Under the enforcement resolution, Democrats can no longer use a parliamentary tactic known as budget reconciliation next year — a process Democrats had hoped might allow them to pass key pieces of legislation, such as a jobs bill, with 51 votes in the Senate, as opposed to the usual 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.

Under the arcane rules of the Senate, budget reconciliation can only be used if it was written into the budget rules passed the previous year. With no full budget, there can be no reconciliation. As a consequence, Democrats lose a valuable tool for passing budget-related items on a majority-rules vote. Stimulus and jobs measures, if they combined short-term spending with longer-term deficit reduction, would have qualified for reconciliation.

Trying to get anything done with a 59-vote caucus has proven to be excruciating for most of this Congress. With Republicans likely to gain seats in the Senate, it makes the prospect of any legislation passing next year seem fairly remote. Reconciliation would have helped, but it’s now off the table.

For what it’s worth, Nate Silver thinks there’s a 26% chance Senate Democrats will gain a seat in November, at least putting them in a position to overcome GOP obstructionism. But that still means there’s a 74% chance the upper chamber will be even more dysfunctional next year. It probably won’t be pretty.