It’s probably for the best that both sides like her, because on health care, MacDonough may need to make some tough decisions that could make one party or the other very unhappy.
MacDonough, along with her assistant parliamentarians, will be charged with deciding which pieces of the legislation violate the rules of budget reconciliation—in particular the “Byrd Rule,” which is named for its author, the late Democratic lawmaker Robert Byrd of West Virginia. His rule requires that everything in a reconciliation bill pertain directly to the federal budget. The idea is to prevent senators from loading up such bills, which get fast-track consideration, with unrelated items that belong in the regular, slower Senate process.
Byrd Rule judgments mostly involve parts of a bill that opponents argue don’t add to or subtract from federal spending, or whose budget impact is “merely incidental” to the purpose of the policy. Outside observers say the provisions in the Senate measure that are vulnerable under this rule include those that would defund Planned Parenthood and affect the rules for private insurance plans.
Generally, the “Byrd bath,” as this ruling process is called on Capitol Hill, involves a string of meetings between Senate committee staff and the parliamentarian. “The Democrats go in, the Republicans go in, then both of them go in together,” Dauster said. Each side argues whether certain language should or should not be allowed in the bill.
The parliamentarian’s office in the Capitol “is actually a small room,” Whitlock said. “And when they are ready to have you in, you’re standing around and all the assembled in the room have at it.” MacDonough does not make her rulings immediately after the arguments. “She has, of late, gotten back to people by email” with her decisions, Dauster said.
That has not always been the case. In the past, said Bill Hoagland, a longtime GOP staff director for the Senate Budget Committee, after making their arguments “we would wait until we went to the floor and [a senator] would raise a point of order” against some specific language. Senators and staff would learn the parliamentarian’s decision only then.
MacDonough’s decisions, depending on what they are, could prompt the bill’s authors to delete language before it comes to the Senate floor. But that could be a risky move for McConnell: Deleting language that was designed to appease Republican holdouts could cause them to yank their support—and put his vote count below 50.
Or lawmakers could keep the text as-is and opt to let the drama may play out in front of the C-SPAN cameras. Any senator can raise a point of order against a provision claiming it violates the Byrd Rule. It takes 60 votes to overcome such a point of order and let the bill proceed as written.
But ignoring MacDonough’s ruling entirely would have weighty consequences for the chamber, staffers say, even if it could hypothetically help Republicans hang onto their votes.