Chuck Schumer
Credit: Gregory Hauenstein/Flickr

It’s forgotten that the budget system we have now is as much about power as numbers.

Passed before Richard Nixon resigned in the summer of 1974, a new budget law boosted Congress’s arsenal in the arms race against The Imperial Presidency. Among his other power grabs, Nixon had impounded congressionally approved funds to thwart Democrats who controlled both chambers. The Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 gave Congress its budget committees, its Congressional Budget Office to pair off against the Executive Branch’s Office of Management and Budget.

It put Congress in the driver’s seat or at least let it be a co-pilot instead of a presidential serf when it comes to spending. It also gave Congress reconciliation which allows bills germane to the budget to be approved by the Senate without a filibuster.

As an original staffer on the Senate Budget Committee back in those heady days in the 1970s, I see a path for Democrats to achieve their twin goals of a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill and a hike in the minimum wage. It means being smart and keeping their powder dry.

They should start by acknowledging the two routes that won’t get them there.

First, Democrats are stuck with the filibuster. Two Democratic Senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, have made clear that the filibuster is here to stay—at least until they change their minds.

Two, Democrats are not going to establish a $15-an-hour minimum wage by using reconciliation as a way around the filibuster’s 60-vote requirement. It was not designed for statutory law and it’s not entirely clear that 50 Democrats will support the hike.

Sleight-of-hand from Chuck Schumer isn’t going to work. The Senate Majority Leader, arguing that a minimum wage hike would have a fiscal consequence and should be included in reconciliation, for example, would open a loophole that any manner of permanent federal laws could be driven through. For that reason alone, don’t count on the congressional parliamentarians, the referees, to buy it. It would reduce their role to absurdity.

This leaves an alternate route. All it requires is a simple roadmap and some patience.

Step One: Try to pull ten Republicans aboard a bill that attains a limited, compromise package of COVID-19 relief spending for things like vaccine distribution and unemployment insurance funding. The goal is to reach the 60 votes to overcome an expected GOP filibuster. There’s plenty of good reason for Democrats to be suspicious that any, let alone 10, Republican Senators will lift a finger to help Joe Biden move important legislation. Obamacare was a party line vote in the Senate. But there’s merit in trying. If reaching out to Republicans doesn’t work, you can bask in the glow of having tried and they look like the bad guys.

The other reason to try for 10 GOP votes is that it just might work. There have been some bipartisan breakthroughs including the relief package passed in December. A crisis has a way of focusing the mind. But it would require the president backing down from his $1.9 trillion number at least for now, paring back what goes into this bill. Jason Furman, the former National Economic Council chair, has a $1.2 trillion package that relies on economic triggers, so if the economy recovers briskly after a vaccination summer, there’d be fewer benefits. It’s not a perfect compromise but it’s a start.

Step Two: After a decent interval—or not—Democrats can then employ “reconciliation” to approve additional federal spending for COVID-19 relief if the GOP says no or only goes along with an anemic relief package. With 50 Democrats and the vice president as a tiebreaker, they can do this anytime they want. They can raise the $1,000 direct payments in the bipartisan legislation to $1,400. They can lower the threshold for benefits from $100,000 to $50,000. It’s up to them.

Again, if it’s about spending, the thin Democratic majority can do pretty much what it wants. There will be no problem with Senate rules or, for that matter, the parliamentarians.

The key here is to find a way for a higher minimum wage than $7.25 an hour, which we desperately need. The only way to do that is by statute. That will take all the Democrats and 10 Republicans. Getting a minimum-wage hike with reconciliation is about as realistic as repealing the Hyde Amendment along with it.

The question—the enduring question in politics—is whether the Democrats want a significant raise in the federally-mandated minimum wage or do they want the issue. Do they want a change in people’s lives or just an issue to waive in front voters in 2022? Only 2 million Americans earn the minimum wage or less, but some 23 million, it’s estimated, would see a desperately needed pay hike. It’s a fair question. The party of the working people simply has to answer it.

The second matter, that of the amount of spending on pandemic relief, is easier to resolve because there is no required trade-off. All the Democrats have to do is cut the best deal they can with the 10 Republicans on the spending total and means-testing. That done, they can go to town using the reconciliation procedure from Nixon’s day. The Democrats I knew in the Senate in the 1970s gave today’s Schumers and Murrays and Durbins a big club. They just have to be smart about how they use it.

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Chris Matthews has worked as a political aide, author, broadcast host, and journalist. He is the author of This Country: My Life in Politics and History and Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.