Democrats hit crunch time in Biden spending fight
Democrats are heading for a chaotic, make-or-break stretch with President Biden’s signature spending plan hanging in the balance.
With lawmakers starting to return to Washington on Monday, Democrats are entering crunch time as they try to move past months of haggling to an intense few weeks of summer legislating that will determine whether their top priority stalls out or if they achieve one of the party’s biggest legislative victories since passing ObamaCare more than a decade ago.
But first, they need to lock down details ahead of the infrastructure roller coaster that will not only test Democratic unity, as progressives and moderates battle for leverage, but also set up high-profile clashes with Republicans that are likely to reverberate into 2022.
“I think it’s going to be pretty hectic,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), about the upcoming congressional work period.
Democrats face a monumental effort as they try to get a package — shaping up to be one of the most expensive ever considered by Congress — through a House and Senate where they hold razor-thin majorities.
Before leaving for a scheduled August recess, one that leadership is warning could be cut short, Democrats are vowing to pass two measures: a bipartisan infrastructure bill, if it sticks together, with 60 or more Senate votes; and a budget resolution that includes instructions for passing another bill under reconciliation that allows them to bypass a GOP filibuster for a party-line, multitrillion-dollar infrastructure package.
“My intention for this work period is for the Senate to consider both the bipartisan infrastructure legislation and a budget resolution with reconciliation instructions, which is the first step for passing legislation through the reconciliation process,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) reiterated in a letter late last week to his caucus.
Senate Democrats could move to the bipartisan bill as soon as the week of July 19, a source told The Hill, though negotiators and the White House, which publicly confirmed the timeline, are still drafting legislative text.
Though Schumer has said the two parts move together, he hasn’t said which one he will bring to the floor first. Progressives are pushing for an “ironclad” guarantee on the Democratic-only bill and Republicans are wary of linking reconciliation to the bipartisan bill spearheaded by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
There’s still a litany of decisions that need to be made before Democrats can move either measure.
Though the bipartisan framework appears to have recovered after it nearly flatlined when Biden suggested he wouldn’t sign it if the Democratic-only bill didn’t come to his desk too, a significant swath of the Republican caucus, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is still keeping the agreement at arms length as negotiators try to finalize it into legislative text.
“I think there’s a decent chance that may come together. All I’ve said is, I would like for it to be paid for. We’ve added quite enough to the national debt,” McConnell said during a recent stop in Kentucky. “This ought to be credibly paid for. That discussion is underway.”
How to pay for the scaled-down bipartisan infrastructure package — the framework provides $1.2 trillion over eight years — has been a rolling point of contention, with skepticism on both sides of the aisle about whether the provisions can cover the cost of the bill.
A forthcoming Congressional Budget Office estimate on how much the bill would add to the national debt, and whether McConnell ultimately gives his full support to the deal, will be crucial in determining how many Republicans vote for the bipartisan package.
Moderates in both chambers are eager to see passage of a bipartisan bill, but progressives also want their party to go bigger, arguing that Republicans weren’t shy during the Trump era when it came to trying to pass their legislative priorities through reconciliation, which lets a bill avoid the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster.
“We need to go big to do this right, and to do this right we need to pass both bills,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said during an interview with Cincinnati Public Radio.
But to pass a Democratic-only bill, regardless of what happens with the bipartisan plan, Democrats would need total unity in the Senate and near total unity in the House — something they don’t yet have.
Republicans are promising a knock-down, drag-out fight over the multitrillion-dollar bill, a sign that the battle may become part of their midterm messaging as they try to win back the House and Senate.
“This is not going to be done on a bipartisan basis. This is going to be a hell of a fight,” McConnell said about the larger spending package.
Rank-and-file Democrats are drawing up a laundry list of demands for what they want included in the larger bill, an acknowledgement of the hurdles Democrats face to getting their big priorities through the Senate outside of reconciliation because of the threat of GOP filibusters for most of their agenda items.
Liberals want significant levels of new spending to expand access to child care, while a coalition of progressives is pushing for addressing climate change. Democrats are also mulling whether they can include immigration provisions. It will all need to pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian, who decides what does, and doesn’t, comply with the rules for being included in a reconciliation bill.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, suggested they first pass the bipartisan plan and then turn to the bigger package, most of which he thinks should be paid for.
“Getting the infrastructure package done is the first job. And then we can talk about what additional stimulus or indeed, is it stimulus or is it simply shoring up some places that really need help like home care, childcare, and those kinds of things?” King told MSNBC.
He added that he was “not comfortable with very much” deficit spending because “the only way to get out of a hole is to stop digging. So … I think whatever, going forward, should be pretty close to deficit neutral.”
Democrats aren’t all on the same page when it comes to the final price tag, an issue they’ll need to resolve in order to pass the budget resolution setting up a larger infrastructure bill.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has floated going up to $6 trillion, while Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has suggested he is more comfortable around $2 trillion. Others have suggested Democrats are likely to end up at $4 trillion — the halfway point between the two key lawmakers — or potentially even lower, depending on what happens with the bipartisan plan.
The top-line will ultimately need the support of every Senate Democrat to pass, and Senate Budget Committee members talked throughout the two-week break. In a nod to the bigger challenge Democrats face in the Senate, House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) has suggested the House could wait to see what budget resolution is advanced in the Senate before taking action.
All of those considerations come with a compressed schedule. Schumer warned in his letter to Democrats that “senators should be prepared for the possibility of working long nights, weekends, and remaining in Washington into the previously-scheduled August state work period.”
It’s a familiar threat from congressional leaders as they try to cajole their members into line, but one that could take on new meaning this year after lawmakers were restricted in their travel during the coronavirus.
Duckworth predicted that changing the August break would result in “a lot of whiny senators.”
“It will be used as a way for us to get the job done,” Duckworth said of the threat. “Maybe that will be used as a carrot on the end of a very big stick.”