The sausage making ain’t gonna be pretty the next few months
If you care about policy making, the next few months are likely to be messy — you may be less put off watching the workings of an actual sausage factory.
The Democrats’ celebrations of a bipartisan Senate approval of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and plans to take up the more significant $3.5 trillion social infrastructure initiative are premature. Bigger challenges lie ahead this fall.
There are multiple tensions on Capitol Hill between the House and the Senate, between Democrats and Republicans — the Senate approval of the infrastructure bill shouldn’t be seen as a harbinger — and between the Democrats’ left wing and mainstream members.
How these tensions play out will affect whether any infrastructure bill is finalized, the fate of Biden’s larger domestic policy initiative, raising the debt ceiling to avoid a government shutdown, and the fate of a voting rights bill to curtail voter suppression.
The political and policy stakes are humongous.
Biden’s presidency perhaps, and certainly next year’s midterm elections may be at stake.
It will define Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) initial leadership in the Senate and test the remarkable skills of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Senate approval of the infrastructure legislation is welcome. It provides much needed funds for roads, rails, bridges, water systems and broadband expansion.
But Democrats shouldn’t get carried away: 19 of 50 Republicans in support, doesn’t presage a better time or a return to traditional bipartisan amity. Infrastructure appeals across any party lines: red states desperately need road and bridges repaired as well as blue states — and would benefit the most from broadband expansion into more rural areas. If Donald Trump had any governing sense, he could have gotten an infrastructure measure when he was in the White House — and for the same reasons.
Any notion that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who voted for the bill, had changed his obstructionist stripes ended when he declared no Republican will vote for extending the debt ceiling this fall, a measure that these days has little to do with controlling the debt and is used instead as a political crowbar.
Two salient facts: The national debt rose by almost $7.8 trillion under Donald Trump, who had promised to eliminate it; the debt ceiling was raised — or was suspended — three times during the Trump presidency; each time, a majority of Senate Democrats voted in favor.
McConnell and his fellow GOP leaders have, to recycle a phrase, become born-again debt virgins now that there’s a Democrat in the White House.
Back to the infrastructure bill, which is now in limbo in the House: A number of left-wing Democrats say they won’t vote for it until the Senate passes the ten-year $3.5 trillion companion bill. A smaller band of moderates say they won’t vote for the bigger bill until the House approves the smaller one. The Democrats have only a three-vote margin in the House.
The Senate only authorized the legislative process to start on the sweeping $3.5 trillion domestic initiative. It will have to be passed on a purely partisan basis under a procedure known as reconciliation. Getting there will be protracted.
The left in the House says the bill has to be bigger. Democratic moderates on both sides of the Capitol say it has to be trimmed down. With no Republican votes, the left has no leverage.
At some point, Pelosi will have to work her political magic and forge a consensus. If she’s successful, a measure still would give seniors dental, hearing and vision coverage under Medicare, extend the child tax credit that keeps millions off the poverty rolls and curb increases in drug prices.
Some Democrats also have problems with how these added expenditures will be paid for. Biden proposed to increase the top corporate and individual tax rates, which were slashed by Trump, and to eliminate loopholes like carried interest enabling rich private equity executives to pay less taxes. A major component, which Republicans have flatly rejected, is to increase tax collection and go after tax cheats by beefing up the Internal Revenue Service’s enforcement resources and tougher reporting requirements.
The K Street lobbyists will be in full gear to gut these measures. It’s worth watching whether any of these lobbyists have ties to the Biden White House.
Both sides realize the politics of reconciliation legislation.
“There’s an awful lot in there for Democrats to run on: expanding Medicare, lowering drug prices, child care, elder care, support for pre-K — all are very popular,” Geoff Garin, a prominent Democratic pollster, told me.
Throw into this complicated mix the voting rights bill. The White House has dragged its feet on this legislation, with some reportedly arguing they can overcome voting obstacles and win some legal challenges. That is a miscalculation, as Republican states around the country are enacting far more effective restrictions, aimed principally at Democratic constituencies, believing the Republican-dominated federal courts will be friendly.
Proponents hoped to succeed this month by approving a carve-out for the filibuster rules to pass on a party-line vote; again, McConnell has ruled out any compromises. One provision would curb gerrymandering of congressional seats, which already is ginning up, so this bill can’t wait for months.
All this presages chaos and uncertainty when Congress gets back from its long summer recess in mid-September.
If all these measures are approved by year’s end, it will be the most productive Congress since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. If there’s only the infrastructure bill and a short-term debt ceiling extension, it will be well short of Barack Obama’s first year.
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.