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Essential Politics: Here’s how the Democrats’ spending bill may change again

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There’s a lot of jargon in Washington, but perhaps few phrases are as consequential — or strangely named — as the Senate’s “Byrd bath.”

It’s a process required each time the Senate majority tries to enact a bill through reconciliation — the legislative procedural tool that allows them to circumvent a filibuster. The Democrats’ social spending bill, approved by the House earlier this month, is getting the treatment now.

While the Byrd bath scrub sounds like another piece of meaningless Washington-speak, the consequences are substantial: If the Senate parliamentarian rules that any pieces of the bill don’t adhere to the Senate’s rules, they are out — called “Byrd droppings” — with no realistic recourse.

Cuts to the bill could anger progressives or moderates and change the delicate negotiation between the House and Senate.

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Social spending bill under scrutiny

The process is cloaked in a bit of mystery since the proceedings are typically limited to a handful of aides in both parties as well as parliamentary staff. The current parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, isn’t known to speak publicly on her rulings. She issued a rare written statement in September explaining her position that including a pathway to citizenship in the Democrats’ spending bill would violate the rules.

In this case, Republicans are expected to comb the bill for Byrdable policies — pieces of the bill that they believe would violate reconciliation rules. They would make their case to MacDonough. Democrats would defend the provisions.

Democrats remain concerned that even their most recent, watered-down attempt to include immigration policy in the bill — offering protection from deportation for some immigrants who entered the country illegally — won’t survive the process.

Also at risk is a policy that Democrats are already touting to voters: A $35-per-month cap on insulin and other policy changes in private health plans. The budget rules will allow significant changes to Medicare, but it is less known whether the budget rules will allow changes to private health plan rules, likely because they have a more tangential effect on federal accounting.

Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) started laying blame on Republicans if the policy gets axed.

Some climate provisions, including tax breaks for electric vehicles, could be challenged, too.

The formal Byrd bath meeting with the Senate parliamentarian was scheduled to begin Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET.

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Christmas countdown

The Byrd process doesn’t have a set time line, but Democrats are hoping to get the bill on the floor the week of Dec. 13. Schumer on Tuesday said he wants it passed by the Senate “before we hit Christmas Day” (suspicious phrasing for Christmas Eve plans).

Schumer’s calendar may face resistance from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), who as the most conservative Democrat has been the center of the negotiations for months. Manchin has advocated to slow down the process and cut back the bill.

While Democrats have thus far been reluctant to criticize Manchin during the negotiations — they need his and every other Democrat’s vote — patience is wearing thin. And it’s likely to only get worse as the calendar flips closer to Christmas.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip, is calling for a “high noon” moment in which everyone has to put their cards on the table and stake a position, something Manchin hasn’t publicly done yet.

“I mean, God bless Joe Manchin but how many months is this going on?” Durbin told reporters. “I told him a month ago, for God sakes, Joe, declare victory and close the deal.”

A man in a mask standing the middle of a circle of people
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) speaks to reporters outside the Senate Chamber on Tuesday.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

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Abortion rights go before the court

Across the street from the Capitol, the Supreme Court this morning will take up Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case that questions the right to abortion originally spelled out in Roe vs. Wade. The newly installed conservative majority could undo the Roe decision in what would be the most significant abortion ruling since the 1973 case.

My colleague David Savage provides five guideposts on what to listen for in today’s oral argument.

Several Senate Republicans on Tuesday lined up behind Mississippi, which wants to prohibit most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Exceptions include a “medical emergency” that threatens the woman’s life or a fetal diagnosis that would be incompatible with life outside the womb. There are no exceptions for rape or incest.

Former Vice President Mike Pence also spoke out in support of Mississippi’s law as it goes before a Supreme Court that includes three conservative justices appointed by the Trump administration.

“Today there is hope on the horizon that the days of Roe vs. Wade are coming to an end,” he said in a speech at an event hosted by the anti-abortion group the Susan B. Anthony List. “Now our Supreme Court has a chance to right that historic wrong once and for all.”

The view from Washington

Mark Meadows, Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, is cooperating with a House panel investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and providing some documents, putting off for now the panel’s threat to hold him in contempt, the committee’s chairman said. But the panel “will continue to assess his degree of compliance,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).

Dr. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity heart surgeon, will run for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat as a Republican. Oz is a longtime resident of New Jersey but recently registered in Pennsylvania and is expected to enter the crowded race with huge name recognition. Pennsylvania has long been considered one of next year’s most competitive Senate races.

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