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Amid Democratic Infighting, Biden’s Domestic Agenda Hangs by a Thread

The events of the next four days on Capitol Hill will go a long way toward determining the ultimate success or failure of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda, as four different legislative initiatives converge in a burst of frenetic policymaking. 

Congress must pass a budget resolution for the new fiscal year before Friday to avoid a partial shutdown of the federal government, and it must raise the limit on the Treasury Department’s authority to borrow money to avoid a catastrophic default on the country’s debts that could occur as soon as mid-October. 

At the same time, the Democratic Party is tearing itself apart internally with arguments over two additional bills that the president sees as vital to his agenda. 

“I don’t know whether everything is going to get resolved this week,” said William A. Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “But there’s no question about the fact that the next week or two — or maximum three — are make-or-break for the Biden administration’s legislative agenda.” 

Democratic infighting 

The first of the two bills that Democrats are fighting over is a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure bill that has already passed the Senate with bipartisan support. The second is a much larger $3.5 trillion bill with tax credits and social spending that would forward multiple Democratic priorities, including efforts to address climate change, expand access to health care, address inequality, and more.

The problem is that the progressive wing of the party is promising to block passage of the infrastructure bill unless the social spending bill is passed first, and moderates are balking unless the infrastructure package is passed first and the cost of the social spending bill is slashed. 

Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington research organization, said the Democratic leadership in the House is in a position similar to the Republican leadership a decade ago. At that time, with the far-right Tea Party movement ascendant, Republican leaders faced a group on the party’s ideological fringe that was willing to scuttle the broader party’s goals to achieve their own, narrower objectives.

“It has historically been the case that when the speaker and the president of the Democratic Party say, ‘We’re going to do this now,’ the party gets in line,” said Grumet. Now, he said, “There is an open question, that will be somewhat resolved in the next few days, about whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Biden can, in fact, maintain cohesion in a very diverse Democratic Party.” 

And that covers only the House of Representatives. For the social spending bill to pass the Senate, Democrats would have to bring along all 50 of their members, including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, both of whom have expressed serious doubts about the proposal.

Republicans filibuster funding bill 

Senate Republicans complicated the process on Monday night by using a legislative tool — the filibuster — to kill a House-passed bill that would have funded the government into December and suspended the debt ceiling restrictions on Treasury borrowing until December 2022. Their aim is to force Democrats to use a process known as “budget reconciliation,” which is immune to the filibuster, to raise the debt ceiling using only Democratic votes. 

Lawmakers in both parties dread having to raise the debt ceiling for fear of being criticized for reckless spending.

Democrats, however, want Republicans to participate in the debt ceiling vote, because the measure would help defray the costs of spending bills and tax cuts passed when the GOP held power. 

Additionally, Democrats had planned to use budget reconciliation to pass the $3.5 trillion social spending bill. But adding an urgent debt ceiling increase complicates that bill significantly and greatly compresses the time that Democrats would have to work on it. 

Filibuster as cudgel 

The stakes are particularly high because after a reconciliation bill is passed, Republicans will be in a position to block most future Democratic initiatives. That’s because budget reconciliation can typically be used only once per budget cycle, leaving Republicans able to filibuster — and thereby kill with unlimited debate — any further Democratic bills. 

Democrats, who control the 100-member Senate with 50 votes plus the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, would need 10 Republican senators to join them to achieve a 60-vote supermajority required to end a filibuster — a near impossibility given the sharp partisan divisions on Capitol Hill.

Failure to secure the president’s objectives now could leave Democrats with nothing to show for two years of unified control of Congress. That would make an already difficult midterm election even more challenging. 

Historically, the party of a sitting president usually loses representation in Congress in midterm elections. With their tiny majorities in the House and Senate, Democrats were already facing the likelihood of losing control of one or both chambers in 2022.

Infrastructure vote postponed 

Speaker Pelosi, a California Democrat, had promised her party’s moderates a vote Monday on the $1 trillion infrastructure package. But, late Sunday night, she announced that the vote would be postponed until Thursday. 

Over the weekend, Pelosi also said the House would vote this week on the larger domestic policy bill — a piece of legislation that hasn’t been written yet because of the extensive intraparty disagreements over what ought to be in it and the price tag. 

House Democrats were scheduled to meet Monday night to find a way forward. 

If the party fails to bridge internal divides and misses the opportunity to enact historic domestic policy, it would likely seal Democrats’ fate, political experts assert. 

“If there isn’t a path to ‘yes’ that people are prepared to take, then the Democratic Party will have failed and will be seen by the American people as having failed,” said Galston, of the Brookings Institution. “And failure, plus a president with low job-approval numbers, is a formula for a political cataclysm in the midterms.” 

 


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