Democrats Set up Chaotic End-of-Year Stretch

The Hill

October 10, 2021 7:23 pm

Democrats are facing a daunting stretch as the party struggles to get beyond internal battles to win approval of President Biden’s agenda — and deal with other crises that have effectively been punted to the Christmas season.

Democrats are entering the home stretch of the year with four big priorities: funding the government, raising the debt ceiling and passing both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a sweeping social spending measure.

It’s a stretch that could make or break Biden’s agenda and will surely set up battles for next year’s midterm elections.

“There’s a lot of stress being felt, or a lot of things at stake in terms of causes that many of us fought for, for a lifetime,” Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said about the current dynamic within the caucus.

The tensions between Democrats — including moderates versus progressives, the Senate versus the House and moderates versus leadership — are increasingly boiling over. That includes a days-long shadowboxing match between Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) over Biden’s social spending measure.

Manchin and Sanders have spent days trading criticisms through the press, but Sanders brushed off a question about if they or Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), another moderate Sanders has urged to be more specific, should get in the room together to hash things out.

“This is not a movie,” Sanders said. “When you’ve got 48 people on one side … it is simply not fair, not right, that one or two people say my way or the highway.”

Sanders and progressives disagree with Manchin, Sinema and House centrists over the measure’s policy details and size.

Sanders is refusing to acknowledge a price tag below $3.5 trillion, while Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) is pushing for a bill around $3 trillion. That’s significantly higher than Manchin’s top line of $1.5 trillion or the roughly $2 trillion range floated by the White House.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill already passed by the Senate, progressives say, won’t move through the House without passage of the larger spending bill. But that’s left moderates fuming.

Moderate Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) said some of his constituents are “sick of the bickering” and want Congress to “stop fighting and sort it out.”

“I strongly support the bipartisan infrastructure bill and think the House should pass and send it to the president immediately. As for the separate $3.5 trillion draft reconciliation proposal in the House … I cannot support it in its current form, nor does it currently have the votes to pass in Congress,” Golden wrote in a Portland Press Herald op-ed.

Democrats face tough choices if they have to lower the size of the bill, as is likely.

Durbin, acknowledging that reality, urged Democrats to settle on a number, adding that “the sooner we get this done, the better. Everyone’s not going to win at the end of the day.”

They had hoped to fund everything from combating climate change to immigration reform as well as housing, child care, education assistance and a health care expansion.

But as the top line slips, they’ll need to think about investing heavily in a smaller number of programs or keeping their expansive wish list but taking more incremental approaches across the board.

While Democratic leadership is aiming to have the bill to Biden by the end of October, senators acknowledge they aren’t married to a timeline.

“Obviously we want to get it done as quickly as possible. But obviously this is an enormously complicated and consequential bill. … This is not a baseball game,” Sanders said, asked if the deal to put the debt ceiling put pressure on Democrats to get the social spending bill done quickly.

But they also can’t risk it dragging too far into fall. If they can’t pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill by the end of October, they’ll need to pass another short-term highways extension, and the scheduling of other must-pass bills, including an annual defense policy bill, have also been in limbo as Democrats try to figure out when they’ll bring their two-part spending package to the floor.

They also risk running directly into round two of their fight over the debt ceiling and funding the government.

Government funding is set to run out on Dec. 3, setting a hard deadline for lawmakers to prevent a shutdown heading into the holidays. And the Treasury estimates that the $480 billion debt hike — which is expected to pass the House on Tuesday — will extend the nation’s borrowing limit until roughly the same time.

When exactly the debt ceiling will hit is unclear. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Shai Akabas noted that analysts are trying to estimate how much money is going into and out of the government and that the “uncertainty comes on the back end” of the Dec. 3 timeline.

Both sides are already digging in.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is doubling down on his pledge that Democrats won’t use reconciliation — a budget process that lets them bypass the 60-vote legislative filibuster — to pass a long-term debt hike later this year. The votes are tough politically for Democrats because they have to raise the debt ceiling to a number instead of suspending it to a date.

“The solution is for Republicans to either join us in raising the debt limit or stay out of the way and let Democrats address the debt limit ourselves,” Schumer said. “Senate Democrats want a long-term solution. … I hope my Republican colleagues relent from trying to make it one when we revisit this issue soon.”

While 11 Republicans helped Senate Democrats overcome a key procedural hurdle on the debt ceiling last week, they are vowing they won’t do so again.

The move, GOP senators argue, was designed to take pressure off changes to the filibuster and prove Democrats had time to raise the debt ceiling on their own under the budget rules. Schumer also rankled the GOP senators he’ll need in December with a fiery speech he gave just before the Senate passed the short-term debt hike.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who has faced criticism from his own members for proposing the short-term debt hike — vowed in a phone call and letter to Biden that Republicans will not help raise the debt ceiling in December. He also railed against Schumer’s speech, saying the Democratic senator’s “tantrum” had “poisoned the well” with GOP senators.

“Your lieutenants on Capitol Hill now have the time they claimed they lacked to address the debt ceiling through standalone reconciliation. … They cannot invent another crisis and ask for my help,” McConnell wrote.

If Republicans don’t blink, congressional Democrats will have limited options, and it could lead to pressure on Manchin and Sinema to create a carveout from the legislative filibuster.

But asked about the looming end-of-year showdown, Manchin said that creating a carveout from the filibuster is already off the table for him.

“The filibuster is the only thread that we have to keep democracy alive and well in America. It keeps us the body that we are,” Manchin said. “If we didn’t have the filibuster to where it would keep us keeping back to civility from time to time, then you would see total chaos.”