Senate Democrats likely to face key test of unity on 2022 budget
Democrats will face an early test of unity in the coming weeks as they prepare a resolution for the 2022 budget that is meant to serve as a vehicle for moving infrastructure and climate change legislation through the Senate on a Democratic vote.
Democrats are using budget reconciliation rules for the 2021 budget to move a COVID-19 relief package through the Senate and avoid a filibuster. For that package, which only required a shell budget, they are relatively unified.
But the next package is expected to pit progressives against fiscal and defense hawks.
“It’s not going to be easy to say the least,” said House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). “There’s going to have to be a lot of a willingness in our members to swallow stuff they don’t like in order to get stuff that they do like.”
Yarmuth should know. In 2019, he was narrowly able to get his party to squeak a budget resolution out of committee, only to pull it from the floor over objections from progressives.
The following year, he skipped the exercise altogether, figuring that forcing a vote was not worth dividing their party, especially given that leadership had negotiated a two-year spending deal the previous summer.
This year, the resolution will serve as the basis of Biden’s “build back better” plan that could define his presidency, and Democrats do not have the luxury of casting the resolution aside.
The party’s progressive wing is pushing to slash defense spending and boost nondefense spending, a category that covers everything from health and education to foreign aid and housing.
“It is a top issue for the CPC,” said Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). “This is a really important moment for us to move forward on cutting out waste, fraud and abuse in the Pentagon.”
Leading the efforts are Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who in the past have called for across-the-board defense cuts of 10 percent that could cut everything other than pay.
Lee argues a precipitous rise in defense spending under former President Trump threw off the balance with nondefense spending.
“Wasteful defense spending does not make our communities safer — it only weakens our ability to respond to crises, and in recent years, that wastefulness has only increased,” she said.
Defense spending rose from $610 billion in 2017 to $748 billion this year, a 22.6 percent increase, far outpacing nondefense spending, which remains 15 percent lower than defense.
The approach by progressives is likely to draw opposition from more centrist Democrats, including lawmakers who flipped House and Senate seats in 2018 or 2020 by running on their national security credentials.
A spokesperson for first-term Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), for example, said he did “not support arbitrary cuts to funding for our national defense” but would work across the aisle to match defense policy to threats facing the U.S.
The Senate in July voted down a proposal from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who now chairs the Senate Budget Committee, to cut defense spending by 10 percent. The vote against Sanders was a bipartisan 77-23.
Democrats also have to contend with the question of how much to increase nondefense spending and battles over raising taxes to pay for some of their priorities.
House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) suggested there is room for compromise given the $1.4 trillion in overall discretionary spending.
“My mission is to shape the $1.4 trillion that goes through the 12 appropriations subcommittees to make government work for working people, the middle class and vulnerable,” she said. “After a period of disinvestment, we need long-term public investment.”
Centrist Democrats such as the Blue Dog Coalition and the New Democrats have been supportive of emergency relief measures with big price tags.
In a January letter to Yarmuth, Blue Dog leaders including Reps. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), Ed Case (D-Hawaii) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) supported exceptions to pay-as-you-go rules for COVID-19 and climate change, but also warned about overreach.
“The truth is that we should have been getting our fiscal house in order well before the first case of COVID-19 arrived in the United States, and the pandemic demonstrates why running a nearly $1 trillion deficit during times of economic expansion hurts our nation and poses a national security risk,” they wrote. “Our Coalition will not support attempts to misapply or misuse the COVID-19 and climate change exemptions.”
For now, congressional leaders and the Biden administration are working behind the scenes to find a plausible starting point. Biden will have to do much of the heavy lifting when he releases his budget proposal, a document that will set the marker for Democratic budget debates.
He’s expected to wait until Congress finishes work on the COVID-19 relief legislation is complete before unveiling his budget, meaning a resolution is unlikely to be wrapped up before April.
If Biden calls for cuts to defense spending, it may give some centrists cover to get on board, the thinking goes. If he miscalculates, it could also lead to a public intraparty fight, a prospect Republicans think could help them win back congressional majorities in 2022.
“As this past week made clear, Democrats are desperate to use the budget process to push a partisan, radical agenda that will harm America’s working class,” said Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), ranking member of the House Budget Committee.
“Whether they will be able — with members of their own party voting ‘no’ last week — or willing to pass an actual budget that is transparent about that radical agenda remains to be seen,” he added.
Yarmuth says his job is to facilitate the debate between the party’s various wings, in hopes that it does not turn into a bloodbath.
“There are probably a minimum of 20 things that people want in there that I’ve heard about already. You know people are talking about infrastructure and immigration and you name it, all sorts of stuff,” he said of the early discussions.
If Democrats hope to succeed, he added, they’ll need to compromise on some of their core convictions.
“We’re going to have to have Blue Dogs who are willing to accept large deficits, and we’re going to have to have progressives accept a fairly large defense number and other things that they don’t like,” Yarmuth said.