When news broke last week that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might not even attempt to pass a budget this year, all hell broke loose among so-called fiscal conservatives. A typical comment came from Representative Barry Loudermilk on Georgia who said “They need to change the [Senate] cloture rule, but until they do, the only way we’re going to be able to accomplish anything is through reconciliation. We have to use reconciliation.”
The Senate has already changed the cloture rule in recent years. The majority no longer needs sixty votes to confirm the administration’s nominees. But the so-called legislative filibuster still exists, at least for now. To get around it, the Republicans used an innovative and unprecedented dual budget reconciliation process last year, with one budget dedicated to overturning Obamacare and the other set aside for enacting “tax reform.” To accomplish this, though, the Republicans actually had to pass two budgets. Only with budgets in hand were they able to resort (twice) to the budget reconciliation process that enabled them to pass legislation with fifty votes. Without a budget for the next fiscal year, the Senate is forced back to regular order, meaning that they’ll need nine Democratic votes to pass legislation.
So, when Rep. Loudermilk says that the Republicans “have to use reconciliation” if they want to get anything done, he means anything that doesn’t require a great deal of compromise with Senate Democrats. I don’t know if we can call it McConnell’s decision not to pass a budget as much as it is an acknowledgment of reality. With only fifty-one members in his caucus now, and with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) suffering from significant health issues, it’s probably not possible for McConnell to pass a real budget, let alone one that the House will agree to. It doesn’t seem that he can reproduce the same trick he used to do a budget for repealing Obamacare, because that was a one-time deal that fiscal conservatives agreed to on the premise that it wouldn’t be repeated. They basically passed an empty shell of a budget which meant that fiscal hawks didn’t have the chance to call for spending cuts. They were also using an unused budget bill from the previous fiscal year, which is something they don’t have the luxury of doing again. So, with no budget there can be no budget reconciliation process, and without a budget reconciliation process, the era of operating without the need to compromise has come to an end. This, in most conservatives’ view, means that nothing can get done, but that’s not true in principle.
What is true is that House Speaker Paul Ryan can forget about his ambitious agenda for starving granny with massive entitlement cuts. And it’s appropriate that the government will shut down at midnight on Friday because the Republicans can’t figure out a way to compromise. Dan Holler, the vice president of Heritage Action, told Politico last week that “It’s legislative malpractice to throw reconciliation out the window,” which is reflective of the Republican activist bases’ refusal to deal in the realm of the possible. They will next agitate for the removal of the legislative filibuster rather than accept a new era in which the GOP must cut deals with their political opponents. But McConnell only needs fifty votes (plus Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote) to enact a budget and he can’t get it done.
Trump, of course, understands exactly none of any of this. He’s probably looking forward to a government shutdown as a way to rally his base for more purely partisan political fights. He got almost no wins using that strategy last year and this year it’s going to be much worse for him. McConnell might be the only Republican with a clear view of where things stand, and he knows that he’s gone as far as he can go with the no-compromise strategy. He will have to wait for everyone else to catch up.