Legislative limbo — how low can they go?

Legislative limbo — how low can they go?
© Greg Nash

The dance of legislation rarely is elegant. Democrats have made it messier than usual, imperiling their congressional majority and Joe BidenJoe BidenMcAuliffe holds slim lead over Youngkin in Fox News poll Biden signs bill to raise debt ceiling On The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan MORE's presidency. Meanwhile, Republicans have escaped scrutiny for behavior that generally has ranged from duplicitous to disgraceful.

With the skill of House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCongress is hell-bent on a spooky spending spree  Pelosi on addressing climate through reconciliation package: 'This is our moment' House progressives lay out priorities for spending negotiations MORE (D-Calif.) and an assist, actually, from swing-vote Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinOn The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan Schumer, McConnell headed for another collision over voting rights Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Climate divides conservative Democrats in reconciliation push MORE (D-W.Va.), Democrats might still pass significant, though scaled back, legislation.

If they don't, it's political suicide.

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In the House, the left-wing progressives need a course in simple math: There aren’t the votes in either the Senate or the House for their super-ambitious aspirations. Some other members — like those siding with the profitable drug companies and against lowering drug prices for seniors and others — need to be called out when they rake in campaign funds from their patrons.

In the Senate, Manchin, who represents one of the most conservative states in America, has throughout talked to Senate and House leaders on ways to cut a possible deal. By contrast, Arizona's Democratic Sen. Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaOn The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Climate divides conservative Democrats in reconciliation push Pelosi on addressing climate through reconciliation package: 'This is our moment' MORE is on a trip, more about ego than skill or substance. She is no John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Biden-Harris train wreck may have its savior: 2024 GOP nominee Donald Trump Kelly raises million in third quarter Legislative limbo — how low can they go? MORE.

The White House, trying to paint Biden as a bold president in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson without Vietnam, has let the $3.5 trillion price tag — a phony figure — dominate the discussion. The focus should be on the particular policies.

Of course, even the pre-Trump-dominated Republicans would have opposed the overall legislation. That's understandable — and expected.

But the Republicans have sunk to new lows, apparently willing to gain partisan advantage by risking the country going into default. So much for the claims that Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden signs bill to raise debt ceiling On The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan Schumer, McConnell headed for another collision over voting rights MORE (R-Ky.), while conservative, is a patriotic institutionalist.

On the Democrats’ big social infrastructure bill, the Republican critiques lack credibility. After turning a blind eye to record debt and deficits run up under Trump, they're now horrified — horrified — by red ink.

There are legitimate issues about the size of the Biden plan; former Democratic Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has expressed concern.

Many of the congressional Republican critics, however, are living in yesteryear when there was a general consensus, highlighted by the Simpson-Bowles bi-partisan commission, that continuing deficits were unsustainable. Then came the fiscal crisis of 2008, when the deficit soared for a decade, followed by the COVID-19 crisis, during which it has surged even more.

The cataclysm didn't occur. With persistently, and unexpectedly low interest rates, it's much easier to finance borrowing. 

And congressional Republicans get apoplectic over Democrats’ plans to undo much of the huge 2017 tax cut. Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote MORE (R-Pa.) said it was this measure that “created the strongest economy of my lifetime.” This is a common claim by Trump — but it is undermined by the data.

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First, the 45th President inherited a solidly recovering economy. Unemployment dropped from 6.7 percent to 4.7 percent in the last three years of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMcAuliffe holds slim lead over Youngkin in Fox News poll Biden's Supreme Court reform study panel notes 'considerable' risks to court expansion Congress is hell-bent on a spooky spending spree  MORE’s presidency. Growth averaged about 2.5 percent a year.

Under Trump, the jobless rate kept dropping to 3.5 percent. But rather than the 4 percent growth Trump promised, it was about the same over the next three years as Obama's final three years. (FYI: the last seven years of President Clinton's term saw faster economic growth than any year under Trump.)

The major effect of Trump’s tax cut was to add to the deficit. The deficit and debt, as a percentage of the gross domestic product, soared. An analysis by the Congressional Research Service found the 2017 tax cuts, which were heavily skewed to benefit corporations and upper income taxpayers, didn't have any significant economic impact.

Real wages did rise 3.4 percent in the two years after the tax cut, compared to 2.5 percent in the two years before; much of that probably was due to tight labor markets attributable in large part to Federal Reserve policy.

Opposition is expected, but Republicans shouldn't be allowed to sidestep a central question: Would they deep-six entirely or scale back by how much the following popular initiatives? Reducing the costs of child care for working class families; a framework for universal pre-K; support for grossly underpaid home health care workers who take care of very ill seniors and those with disabilities; more assistance for junior college and four-year college students; expanding Medicare and the Affordable Health Care Act; reducing the costs of prescription drugs, and investments to address climate change.

Republicans talk a lot about a lower poverty rate under Trump; they talk a lot less about the Biden proposal to extend the child tax credit, due to expire this year. It has taken 3 million children out of poverty; estimates are an extension would lower the percentage of children living in poverty from 14 percent to 8 percent.

The story line about Democrats' disarray is on the mark, so too is the one about Republican duplicity.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.