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535 ‘presidents’ with veto power: Why budget deal remains elusive

Pramila Jayapal and Joe Manchin
Greg Nash

Spending time with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), as I did last week, provides a full spectrum view of the complexity of negotiations on the reconciliation package. The good news is that congressional Democrats are united in a pragmatic understanding that their prospects in the midterm elections are tied to passage of both reconciliation and the bipartisan infrastructure package. The bad news is the negotiations are like a Rubik’s Cube — every action has a potential adverse reaction. 

Let’s assess the state of play, shall we? Get out pencils, pads and Dramamine.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), as of this writing, is pushing for a vote on both measures this week, before President Biden departs for Europe. But my friends at Punchbowl News scoffed this morning: “Let’s be blunt. Democrats aren’t close to a framework agreement on their massive reconciliation package.

The sides are making progress on big-ticket items such as climate, Medicare expansion, prescription drug prices and paid family leave. But there are Democrats who have committed to vote against the bill if it doesn’t address local concerns, such as restoring state and local tax deductions. 

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) proposes to pay for the reconciliation bill with a “billionaire income tax.” But his House counterpart, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) prefers to raise marginal and corporate tax rates. Neal recently commented that “[O]ur plan looks better every day.” But not to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who says she will not support any tax increase in a reconciliation bill. 

The tax-writing committees are sending interns to look under couch cushions for loose change. But we still don’t know the top-line number because we don’t have a bottom line. Follow, so far? 

Then there’s the issue of investing in climate change mitigation. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Manchin “has pushed Democrats to drop or weaken a second major climate change provision from the sweeping social policy and environmental spending bill…” But Rep. Jared Huffman (D- Calif.) is, well, cool to a global warming bill that doesn’t go far enough. “I’m hearing the same rumors that the leadership is going to dust off the same vote that we decided not to take a few weeks ago,” Huffman said. “Nothing has changed. So, I’d be shocked if the political calculus was different now. Specifically, the vote count.”

Now it really gets complicated.  

Moderates – especially Democrats in districts won by Donald Trump in 2020 – argue that they can’t win reelection without swing voters. Progressives counter that Democrats can’t win without their base. But moderates insist that they don’t have enough of a base in their districts to offset the loss of swing voters, which means losing the midterms. But progressives are adamant that a smaller bill means lower Democratic turnout, which also means losing the midterms. Clear?

The media froths over the seeming chaos. Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) are like Batman and Robin (I’ll leave it to your imaginations to decide who’s who). Every caucus meeting is a cliff-hanger, and everyone’s opinion a death knell. Will Manchin concede? Will Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, compromise? Will Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) get immigration reform? Stay tuned. 

What surprises me is that anyone is surprised by the time and difficulty involved in getting a deal. Wasn’t this all to be expected? Isn’t this exactly what happens when you rest a combination of the New Deal, Great Society and Apollo program on a three-vote majority in the House and one in the Senate? Every vote is critical, every member’s position inflated. It’s like we have 535 presidents running around Capitol Hill with veto stamps.  

There was a time when these votes were without drama, free of suspense. The leadership told its members how to vote, members generally fell in line, bills got passed, everyone went back to their districts and most everyone got reelected. 

But two midterm wave elections changed everything. In 2010, Tea Party Republicans came to town; in 2018, an emboldened generation of progressives. Neither was very keen on the prospect of “regular order”; on respecting the hallowed rules of seniority; on sitting at the bottom row of a dais in a committee room waiting to be recognized. They came not to compromise but to defy. 

Add to that how partisan redistricting, residential sorting patterns and social media have pulled rank-and-file members even further to the extremes, and you have a Congress built to sever.

Which means Biden, Pelosi and Schumer continue to skate on thin ice through a murky fog dissembling that Rubik’s Cube, as I’ve said before. It’s not easy, but everyone knows that in the burning heat of a midterm election, the ice cracks.  

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags Biden Biden infrastructure bill budget reconciliation package. climate change Chuck Schumer Congressional Progressive Caucus Democratic Party Dick Durbin Donald Trump Jared Huffman Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal Presidency of Joe Biden Richard Neal Ron Wyden Rosa DeLauro Steve Israel

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