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‘Awfully powerful for someone no one has heard of’, the Senate parliamentarian ‘nays’ immigrant programs in $3.5tn spending bill

‘Awfully powerful for someone no one has heard of’, the Senate parliamentarian ‘nays’ immigrant programs in $3.5tn spending bill
Joe Biden can’t squeeze migrant citizenship into the filibuster-proof spending deal, the interpreter of Senate rules has said. Some called it a “crushing blow” to the administration, but others say the opinion should be ignored.

Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate parliamentarian, delivered on Sunday her decision on immigration provisions in the ambitious 10-year, $3.5 trillion spending bill. Democrats want to pass it to fund social and climate programs on top of a paired $1 trillion infrastructure bill. The provisions, which seek to clear a path for undocumented immigrants to obtain citizenship or residency, are against the Senate rules, she said.

Unlike its infrastructure twin, the spending bill doesn’t have any support from the GOP, so Democrats are trying to push it through the Senate filibuster under the budget reconciliation process. MacDonough’s job to interpret the often-enigmatic rules of the upper chamber of Congress includes advising on what can and cannot be included in reconciliation.

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Earlier this year, her opinion that a $15 minimum wage constituted a policy and would be outside of the scope of the budget resulted in Democrats dropping it from the Covid-19 relief bill, much to the disappointment of the progressive wing of the party.

The Associated Press, which obtained the parliamentarian’s three-page memo to senators regarding the spending bill, called the development a “crushing blow” to pro-immigration Democrats. MacDonough, a one-time immigration attorney, said the language of the provisions constituted “by any standard a broad, new immigration policy,” and thus needed to be part of a regular piece of legislation subject to filibuster. With the Senate split 50-50, Democrats can’t overcome Republican senators if the latter stand united.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats were “deeply disappointed in this decision” and in the next few days will be sending “alternate proposals” for MacDonough’s consideration. “Fixing our broken immigration system is a moral and economic imperative,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell welcomed the news and said that Democrats “will not be able to stuff their most radical amnesty proposals into the reckless taxing and spending spree they are assembling behind closed doors.”

Many progressive commentators were disappointed with the decision as well as Democrats’ reaction to it. The opinion of the parliamentarian doesn’t carry any legal power per se and can be technically ignored by the presiding officer – Vice President Kamala Harris in this case. Suggestions to ignore MacDonough or fire her came in droves from the progressive camp after the first time she undercut their agenda this year.

“Stop saying the parliamentarian ‘blocked’ or ‘ruled’ anything. They have zero power,” popular YouTube political show host Kyle Kulinski tweeted. “Dems must *choose* to give in to whatever the parliamentarian says (and they of course will)”. Journalist Ryan Grim, a vocal critic of the Senate filibuster rules, wondered how MacDonough was still employed.

Andrew Yang, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate who reportedly is now considering launching a third party, joked that MacDonough “seems awfully powerful for someone no one has heard of.” Matt Ford, former associate editor at The Atlantic, said the parliamentarian seemed like a branch of power in the US, coequal with the “White House counsel’s office, and the shadow docket.”

The role of the parliamentarian has not been as obscure from the public eye as one might think. MacDonough’s predecessor, Alan Frumin, emerged as a key figure for the effort by the Obama administration to push through the Senate amendments to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010.

Obamacare itself was passed as a regular piece of legislation, but Democrats wanted to change it more to their liking through budget reconciliation, and it was up to Frumin to say which parts of the law they could alter.

The incumbent parliamentarian likewise played a key part in declawing the 2017 GOP attempt to repeal ACA.

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