The Senate took a crucial step to pave the way toward repealing Obamacare early Thursday morning, passing a budget resolution that would let Republicans’ eventual repeal bill move through the chamber with just 51 votes.
The measure passed 51-48, with every Senate Democrat present opposing it, and every Senate Republican except Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) supporting it.
If the House of Representatives passes the same measure — and they plan to do so later this week — it will go into effect, and make sure that Obamacare repeal cannot be filibustered by Senate Democrats.
That repeal bill still needs to be written, though. So this week’s votes won’t actually result in any actual changes to Obamacare. They’re just about making it far easier for Republicans to pass such changes in the weeks to come.
The Senate voted to make sure 51 votes, not 60, will be necessary to pass Obamacare repeal
Most ordinary bills in the Senate can be filibustered. It takes 60 senators to overcome a filibuster and advance a bill, and since there are only 52 Republican senators this year, that means Democrats can block the vast majority of bills if GOP leaders can’t win their cooperation.
There’s one loophole to that numbers game, and it’s called budget reconciliation. According to Senate rules, bills specially set up for budget reconciliation cannot be filibustered — that is, they can be advanced through the chamber with just 51 votes (one of which could be a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence). This provision was generally intended to make it easier for Congress to reduce the deficit, though in recent years it has sometimes been used instead to increase the deficit — check out Dylan Matthews’s explainer on how it works.
Naturally, Republicans wanted to make sure their Obamacare repeal bill can be passed with budget reconciliation, since that’s the only way they can pass something without Democratic support. (There is the thorny problem that, under Senate rules, certain parts of Obamacare can’t be repealed through reconciliation because they don’t affect government spending or revenue. But the heart of the law — its spending on coverage expansion — is vulnerable.)
If Congress wants to use budget reconciliation, though, it has to jump through a few procedural hoops first. Specifically, it has to pass a budget resolution. That’s what the Senate did this week, and what the House needs to do next.
You need a budget resolution before you can use budget reconciliation. That’s what the Senate just passed.
A congressional budget resolution is a strange beast. It’s not subject to the president’s signature and therefore doesn’t have the force of law. Instead, it’s a way for Congress to lay out how it intends to do its own business.
The purpose of most budget resolutions is to let Congress establish a blueprint for how much it thinks the federal government should spend in the coming year. And the GOP budget resolution in the Senate this week, which you can read here, technically does that.
But the true purpose of this budget resolution was instead to set that 51 vote Senate threshold for a future Obamacare repeal bill, according to GOP leaders.
The resolution tells the two health-related committees in the House and the Senate to get to work on a bill “to reduce the deficit” that will be considered under reconciliation rules. That will be the actual Obamacare repeal bill, which will then go through each chamber’s budget committee and finally to the floors of the House and Senate before it gets to the president, theoretically. But that’s still in the future.
The real Obamacare repeal debate is still ahead
The Senate tackled the budget resolution this week under a special set of procedures, the upshot of which was that Republicans were be able to pass it with a simple majority. (Yes, the budget resolution setting the 51-vote Senate threshold for an eventual Obamacare repeal bill can itself be passed with just 51 Senate votes.)
Next, it will be the House’s turn — it will have to pass a budget resolution of its own. This will have to have identical language to the Senate-passed version before it goes into effect. So if the House makes any changes, the two chambers will have to hammer them out so that an identical version passes both the House and Senate. Then the budget resolution will go into effect, with no presidential signature needed.
But passage of the budget resolution won’t mean Obamacare repeal has won — indeed, there won’t be any changes to the program whatsoever just from this. The actual messy debate and vote on repealing the health law will still lie ahead. What’s happening this week is just meant to procedurally pave the way for it.