535 'presidents' with veto power: Why budget deal remains elusive

535 'presidents' with veto power: Why budget deal remains elusive
© Greg Nash

Spending time with Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinPelosi sidesteps progressives' March 1 deadline for Build Back Better On The Money — Fed's inflation tracker at fastest pace since '82 Billionaire GOP donor maxed out to Manchin following his Build Back Better opposition MORE (D-W.Va.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa DeLauroFiscal spending deadline nears while lawmakers face pressure to strike deal Negotiators report progress toward 2022 spending deal Republicans must join us to give Capitol Police funding certainty  MORE (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 PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi sidesteps progressives' March 1 deadline for Build Back Better Let's 'reimagine' political corruption Briahna Joy Gray discusses Pelosi's 2022 re-election announcement MORE (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.

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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 WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenTop Biden official says information classification system undermines national security, public trust Senate Democrats urge Biden to get beefed-up child tax credit into spending deal Overnight Energy & Environment — High court will hear case on water rule MORE (D-Ore.) proposes to pay for the reconciliation bill with a “billionaire income tax.” But his House counterpart, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard NealRichard Edmund NealSenate Democrats urge Biden to get beefed-up child tax credit into spending deal Pelosi: Build Back Better may need to be 'more limited,' renamed Judge dismisses Trump suit to block Congress from getting tax returns MORE (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 SinemaKyrsten SinemaThe Hill's Morning Report - Democrats sense opportunity with SCOTUS vacancy Schumer finds unity moment in Supreme Court fight Left says they're not to blame for Biden's problems MORE (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 HuffmanJared William HuffmanDemocrats press cryptomining companies on energy consumption In their own words: Lawmakers, staffers remember Jan. 6 insurrection Overnight Energy & Environment — Manchin raises hopes on climate spending MORE (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 TrumpDonald TrumpFormer chairman of Wisconsin GOP party signals he will comply with Jan. 6 committee subpoena Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon tells Russia to stand down Billionaire GOP donor maxed out to Manchin following his Build Back Better opposition MORE 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 SchumerChuck SchumerThe Hill's Morning Report - Democrats sense opportunity with SCOTUS vacancy Schumer finds unity moment in Supreme Court fight Breyer retirement throws curveball into midterms MORE (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 JayapalPramila JayapalPelosi sidesteps progressives' March 1 deadline for Build Back Better Left says they're not to blame for Biden's problems On The Money — Economy had post-recession growth in 2021 MORE (D-Wash.), who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, compromise? Will Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinSchumer finds unity moment in Supreme Court fight Schumer vows to vote on Biden Supreme Court pick with 'all deliberate speed' Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE (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. 

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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.