Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) talks to reporters about the...

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) talks to reporters about the expansive agreement reached with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on health care, energy and climate issues, and taxes on higher earners and corporations, in Washington Thursday. Credit: AP / J. Scott Applewhite

WASHINGTON — The $739 billion climate, energy and health package unveiled in a surprise announcement Wednesday faces hurdles as Democratic congressional leaders seek to shepherd it past Republicans and onto the president’s desk in the next few weeks.

The bill, a negotiated deal between Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), will go through an arcane process called budget reconciliation, which allows Democrats to pass it without a single Republican vote.

That does not mean it will be easy, said G. William Hoagland, a Bipartisan Policy Center senior vice president and a former longtime Republican staffer on the Senate Budget Committee.

“This will just be a struggle of patience and willingness to take some tough votes. And the Democrats are going to have to stick together,” he told Newsday.

Schumer, in a closed-door meeting Thursday, sought to rally his caucus to pass the bill to allow Medicare drug price negotiations, expand access to the Affordable Care Act for three years, fund climate and energy projects, and pay down the deficit by $300 billion.

“It will require us to stick together and work long days and nights for the next 10 days. We will need to be disciplined in our messaging and focus. It will be hard,” according to a Democrat in the room. “But I believe we can get this done.”

The Byrd bath

“The biggest hurdles right now are simply what they're going through with the process, making sure all the provisions that they have in the draft bill are not subject to what we call the Byrd rule,” Hoagland said.

In 1985, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) sponsored a law that changed the rules on budget reconciliation, a tool to cut the federal deficit that both parties use to avoid a filibuster and its 60-vote threshold to pass major legislation

Under the Byrd rule, all measures in a reconciliation package must meet tests that show they affect the federal spending or revenue. In a process called the Byrd bath, the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, reviews the measures in the package and requires removal of those that she determines do not meet those tests.

“We hope to finish with the parliamentarian — it’s going to be hard to do because it’s a shortened timeline with a large bill — and move to the Senate floor next week,” Schumer said Thursday at a news conference.

Vote-a-Rama

After the Byrd bath comes the vote-a-rama.That is when senators from both parties offer amendments and challenges to parts of the bill that they contend do not pass the Byrd baths in a session that can last 20 hours or more, and often end in the early hours of the next day.

Stunned by the surprise bill, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that “we’re going to be really aggressive in opposition.”

Hoagland said, “What this sets up is what could be some very nasty amendments for Democrats to have to face” — which might force them to vote for unpopular or embarrassing political positions.

At the end of the vote-a-rama, the Senate will vote on the package. Democrats can succeed with its 50 votes and a tiebreaker cast by Vice President Kamala Harris. But Schumer cannot lose a single vote, either because of COVID-19 or disagreement.

Questions swirled around Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who has vowed not to vote to raise taxes, which the package does. Her office said she is reviewing the legislation.

Schumer said, “We’re going to work out how to pass this bill successfully going through vote-a-rama and I think we’ll have the collaboration of all 50 of the members.”

In the House

If Senate Democrats succeed next week, the package would then go to the House, which goes on August recess on Friday. So House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would have to call members back for a vote, though many could vote by proxy.

Pelosi’s margin of nine votes drops to eight after a Republican is seated Aug. 9 and it is unclear if progressives will balk at Manchin’s inclusion of oil and gas permits on public lands in the bill or moderates will walk away over the failure to include a SALT (state and local taxes) deduction fix.

“The burden is really on Speaker Pelosi to hold her caucus together,” Hoagland said.

Schumer said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) praised the bill when he talked to her. And Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), despite his “no SALT, no deal” mantra, said in a statement to Newsday: “I support this legislation if it makes no changes to the personal income tax code.”

Hoagland said Democrats appear to be poised to succeed.

“I always like to say a reconciliation bill is a terrible thing to waste,” he said. “And they're not going to waste it. They're going to get it done.”

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