Biden’s Agenda Depends on Navigating Congressional Thicket


June 21, 2021 10:13 am

President Joe Biden’s plan for trillions of dollars in proposed spending and tax increases is entering a procedural and political thicket in Congress that’s likely to take at least until September to clear.

If all goes according to plan for Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the Senate would pass a bipartisan infrastructure deal next month as well as a budget blueprint that sets up a vote later on a far larger bill with trillions in social spending paid for in large part by tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations. The budget bill could be passed with only Democratic votes in the Senate.

But progressive Democrats in the House and Senate say they may not back an infrastructure package that includes concessions to Republicans without a guarantee that their priorities — on climate, health care and social welfare — will be accommodated in follow-up budget legislation. At the same time, moderate Democrats like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia are so far refusing to commit to supporting a massive spending bill that would be passed on a party-line vote.

Here’s how the Democrats’ two-track strategy is likely to unfold:

Work Remains on Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal

A bipartisan group now numbering 21 senators — 11 Republicans, nine Democrats and one independent — still has to hash out the final details of their infrastructure proposal and negotiate with the White House. A sticking point is a proposal that was part of a preliminary outline to partly offset the cost by indexing the federal gasoline tax to inflation.

The White House on Friday reiterated its opposition to raising the gas tax, and some of the Democrats in the group said that piece remains in flux. The outline released last week leaves it up to Biden to offer an alternative, but Republicans have rejected raising income taxes on the wealthy or corporations. The White House last week suggested increased tax enforcement on the wealthy as an alternative, according to a White House official.

No Guarantees Even if Agreement is Reached

Even if a deal is hammered out, written and put on the Senate floor shortly after lawmakers return from their July 4th break, passage isn’t a slam dunk. A number of Democrats are opposed to how it would be paid for and complain that it lacks sufficient steps to address climate change. That could mean the bipartisan group and the White House will have to hunt for more Republicans in order to get the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

If the Senate passes the package, the House would then become critically important as a backstop for liberals. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said recently the House could hold up final passage of a bipartisan infrastructure package until a larger Democratic plan passes the Senate, and vote on both at approximately the same time. A similar tactic was used by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pass the Senate version of the Affordable Care Act and an accompanying reconciliation package on the same day in March 2010.

A Budget Plan to Set Up Spending Bill

In order to get the remainder of Biden’s $4 trillion in jobs and family proposals across the finish line, Democrats in the House and Senate will first have to pass a budget resolution that would tee up follow-on legislation with the rest of Biden’s agenda. That would allow them to fast-track the bill through the Senate with a simple majority vote — a procedural tactic known as reconciliation — bypassing any Republican effort to block it with a filibuster.

House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth plans to work on a budget blueprint the week of July 12. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders has not yet set a date for his committee to begin work. He told reporters last week that he wants a $6 trillion package, though several moderates have balked at that figure.

Democrats will have to agree on a limit over how much the so-called reconciliation package can add to the deficit. They will also have to agree on topline spending levels for regular appropriations and are expected to provide for an increase in the debt limit later this year as well.

The Final Push for a Comprehensive Bill

It could take Democrats months to draft what is now likely to be one massive package jammed with as much of Biden’s economic agenda as they can get all 50 senators who caucus with Democrats and a House majority to approve.

But the fast-track process for bypassing filibusters is subject to arcane rules on what can be included informally ruled over by the parliamentarian. Items have to relate to the budget to qualify.

And the bill also is wide open to amendments. Senate Republicans will be able to offer changes designed to either try and split Democrats or pile up difficult votes that they plan to exploit in next year’s midterm elections. That process took a 25-hour marathon of votes when the Senate passed Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill in March.

Democrats Have a Slim Margin of Error

Any Democratic absence or defection in the 50-50 Senate could delay or even kill the bill. In the House, Democrats can’t afford to lose more than four votes.

Every progressive interest group and faction will be pushing to attach their favored legislation on topics as varied as curbing climate change, slicing prescription drug prices, expanding Medicare and adding a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. Lobbyists for affected industries and the wealthy will be seeking carve-outs or to kill the package entirely.

And Democrats are not yet united behind Biden’s tax increases. Some want to revive the full state and local tax deduction — a pricey item that would primarily benefit the wealthy that the White House has not yet proposed — while others oppose Biden’s proposal to tax unrealized capital gains at death in excess of $1 million.

Read More: Biden Rebuff on Gas Tax Casts Doubt on Infrastructure Deal

A move to accommodate one faction’s concerns would shrink the money available for spending somewhere else.

The longer the process drags on, the closer the 2022 midterm elections, potentially making lawmakers more reluctant to take tough votes. Democrats like Schumer are wary of a repeat of the Affordable Care Act battle in 2009 and 2010, which took months longer than they hoped in part because of failed bipartisan talks, while issues like climate and immigration languished. That was followed by a massive Republican wave in the 2010 midterm elections

–With assistance from Erik Wasson and Laura Litvan.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Steven T. Dennis in Washington at