Senate Parliamentarian Kills Dems' Bid for Immigration Reform Through Reconciliation

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and President Joe Biden / Getty Images
September 20, 2021

The Senate parliamentarian on Sunday ruled against an effort by President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats to legislate immigration reform through the budget reconciliation bill.

Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, who is responsible for interpreting the rules of the Senate, determined that Democrats could not include major immigration reform in their proposed $3.5 trillion spending bill. Democrats hoped to insert measures in the bill that would grant legal status and a path to citizenship to as many as 10.5 million illegal immigrants. Including the reforms in the budget bill would have allowed Democrats to bypass the Senate filibuster and legislate on immigration in the face of total Republican opposition.

Democrats took up the strategy days after the president proposed it. Following a meeting with Hispanic Caucus legislators in July, Biden told reporters, "We should include in the reconciliation bill the immigration proposal."

The reconciliation bill can only deal with issues of spending and revenue under congressional rules, but Democrats argued that because the amnesty measure would raise the deficit by $139 billion it should be considered appropriate to include in the budgetary bill. MacDonough disagreed, ruling that the ambitious reform would "far outweigh the budgetary impact scored to it and it is not appropriate for inclusion in reconciliation."

The Senate parliamentarian holds an advisory role, and MacDonough can be overruled by Vice President Kamala Harris, the presiding officer of the Senate. In practice, however, such measures are almost never taken. The parliamentarian was last overruled in 1975, and White House officials have indicated they would not take such action against MacDonough.

Even without the immigration reforms, it's unclear if Democrats will be able to pass the massive reconciliation bill. House Democrats are in a standoff over the legislation. Some moderates have balked at the bill's price tag and insisted that a smaller bipartisan bill be passed before reconciliation is considered, while progressives have said they will not vote on the bipartisan bill until the reconciliation bill is passed.

Democratic senators Joe Manchin (W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), meanwhile, have both said they won't support the $3.5 trillion bill.