Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) says that he will not support efforts by Democrats to overrule the Senate’s nonpartisan referee and include wide-ranging immigration in their $1.75 trillion reconciliation bill.
Immigration reform has been a top priority for Democrats since Barack Obama’s presidency—and they see their current reconciliation bill as a once-in-a-decade opportunity to finally act on that priority.
But because they are using the reconciliation process, Democrats are heavily limited in what they can do with the bill; These limitations have plagued the party time and time again as they have sought to include comprehensive immigration reform in their budget.
The budget reconciliation process is appealing to lawmakers because, unlike a normal bill, a reconciliation bill cannot be filibustered in the Senate. However, after its introduction in the 1970s, lawmakers realized that the process, designed to apply strictly to bills on federal spending and revenue, was being used for ends well outside of the process’s original intent.
This led the Senate to adopt the so-called “Byrd rule,” named after the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).
The rule stipulated that all provisions in a reconciliation bill must be directly related to federal spending and revenues in a way that is not “merely incidental.” It falls to the nonpartisan Senate parliamentarian, who acts as a rule-keeper for the upper chamber, to determine what a party may include in reconciliation under the Byrd rule.
The current parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, has strictly enforced the Byrd rule against the wishes of both parties in recent years.
As Democrats have moved forward with their ambitious budget bill, immigration reform has been a high priority for the party. But MacDonough has twice foiled these plans, ruling that two proposed Democratic measures to give millions of illegal aliens amnesty were outside of the purview of reconciliation.
Now, some Democrats are considering changing the rules of the reconciliation process in order to override what they see as MacDonough’s overly restrictive interpretation of the Byrd rule.
Theoretically, this is possible. The rules of the Senate can be changed by the consent of a simple majority of members. But even in the best of times, senators are hesitant to use this so-called “nuclear option” to change Senate rules, as many rules in the Senate are designed specifically to protect the rights of the minority party.
Democrats currently have the thinnest possible majority in the Senate, and could only resort to the nuclear option if every senator in their caucus is on board.
But Manchin says he will not lend his vote to the effort.
“People might be all excited about something now,” Manchin told Fox News, but cautioned, “It might not even fit in the bill because on our side it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t come within the rules of reconciliation.”
“I’m not going to vote to overrule the parliamentarian,” Manchin emphasized. “I’m not going to do that; they all know that.”
Manchin, a self-described “conservative Democrat,” has harshly criticized other efforts by his party to change the current rules of government, including efforts to abolish or weaken the filibuster and efforts to pack the Supreme Court with justices more amenable to liberal perspectives.
After the 2020 election, Manchin took to Fox News to console conservatives who feared that the Democrat-controlled Congress would make wholesale changes to government rules. Manchin promised then that he would not lend his support to any effort to weaken the filibuster, vowing to fight for the rule in the upper chamber.
When Manchin upheld this promise over the summer, controversy ensued.
As Democrats made a concerted push to federalize elections, they faced insurmountable opposition from Senate Republicans armed with the filibuster. For many in the party, the answer to the conundrum was to abolish the filibuster—or at least to change the rules to allow election bills to be immune from the process.
But Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have both refused to change the filibuster, even as calls persist to weaken it.
More recently, Manchin opposed changing the filibuster to pass a debt ceiling increase, even as other moderates in the party like Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) saw a filibuster change as preferable to a default.
In this newest break from his party, Manchin has effectively neutered Democrats’ effort to include immigration reform in their reconciliation bill. Unless a Republican defects—a highly unlikely situation as they continue to unanimously oppose Democrats’ reconciliation bill in its entirety—Democrats will remain bound to the rulings of the parliamentarian.