President Joe Biden is about to drop a lot of policy.
In a Pittsburgh speech Wednesday, Biden will reveal the first part of his “Build Back Better” jobs plan, focused on traditional infrastructure and combating climate change. A few weeks down the road, he’ll reveal a second proposal emphasizing the “care economy,” including extensions of the newly enhanced child tax credit and paid family and medical leave. The twin packages, according to the Washington Post, add up to about $4 trillion in spending, offset by $3 trillion in proposed tax increases on the wealthy and businesses.
Now Democrats just have to figure out how to pass it—and what “it” ultimately will be.
The administration may have come up with its wish list, but the legislative strategy for making it come true is far from determined. No one expects, though, that the process will be as straightforward as the relatively seamless passage of the American Rescue Plan. There, Biden released a proposal for COVID relief, and Democrats in Congress essentially printed it out, tinkered with a few numbers, and moved it along the conveyor belt to completion.
This time, just because Biden is releasing his plan in two separate pieces doesn’t mean it will all be moved in two corresponding bills. Democrats—unless a creative, unprecedented rules interpretation from Sen. Chuck Schumer gets past the Senate parliamentarian, who’s not known for her receptivity to creative, unprecedented rules interpretations—have just one reconciliation bill, which allows them to bypass a 60-vote filibuster, remaining. And they still do not have the votes to eliminate the filibuster.
There’s also an appetite from Democratic centrists in both the House and the Senate to secure a bipartisan package, after having passed COVID relief along party lines in a contentious process. One idea, then, would be to try to cobble together a bipartisan package focusing on the broadly popular elements with a history of bipartisan cooperation, and then dump everything else into a reconciliation bill.
There are several problems with this approach.
First, if Republicans negotiated an agreement on a major infrastructure package, giving Biden a big bipartisan win, and then watched Democrats pursue everything else they want in a reconciliation bill afterward, they would look like chumps. They’re aware of that. “If they decide to do that as a ploy to lure Republicans in to vote for the easy stuff and then do … the controversial stuff through reconciliation, I don’t think our guys are going take the bait on that,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune told reporters last week.
Democrats are also straightforward about wanting to pay for infrastructure through tax increases, including increasing the corporate tax rate from 21 to 25 or 28 percent. Republicans consider the 21 percent corporate tax rate, which they lowered from 35 percent in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, their signature legislative accomplishment of the Trump era. As Donald Schneider, a former GOP House Ways and Means Committee staffer, told the Washington Post, “it’s like Republicans saying, ‘We’ll do infrastructure, but pay for it by reversing the Affordable Care Act.’ ” It’s an absolute nonstarter on the Republican side of the aisle.
Democrats also want their infrastructure plan to be the vehicle for their addressing climate change, a problem that Republicans in Congress either don’t take seriously, don’t believe is human-made, or don’t acknowledge as happening whatsoever. And not least, Republicans will want to streamline the infrastructure process, including waiving federal requirements to pay workers and contractors on infrastructure projects the prevailing (union) wage, a red line for most congressional Democrats and the labor-friendly Biden administration.
Sorting the proposals into one bipartisan infrastructure bill and another partisan receptacle for everything else may be too neat to work. The White House is, however, considering a more dispersed approach to satisfying appetites for bipartisanship: scattering elements of Biden’s proposals into other bipartisan bills—and then, still, doing a reconciliation receptacle for everything else. It would be easy for Republicans to organize their opposition to a single “Biden infrastructure bill.” It would be less so if those pieces were attached to other bills that are either popular or “must-pass.”
There are a few options. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, for example, has been planning a bill that “that seeks to counter China’s rising global power and proposes funding aimed at bolstering U.S. manufacturing and supply chains.” At the core of this would be the Endless Frontier Act, a bipartisan bill Schumer co-authored with Indiana Sen. Todd Young, to “solidify the United States’ leadership in scientific and technological innovation.” In a letter Schumer wrote to his colleagues ahead of the current Senate recess, he said that upon their return, “multiple committees will have hearings and mark-ups on bipartisan legislation designed to bolster American competitiveness and counter the growing economic threats we face across the globe, especially from the Chinese Communist Party.” A bipartisan vehicle for combating the “Chinese Communist Party” could be a fruitful place for the administration to place the manufacturing elements of “Build Back Better.”
As for transportation infrastructure, there’s the … normal bill where that’s all done! Legislation for a five-year surface transportation reauthorization is due this year. While this traditionally bipartisan bill is the most likely vehicle for the “roads and bridges” parts of Biden’s agenda, it is not necessarily “must-pass,” as deadlocked negotiations can always lead to temporary extensions of existing policies.
The bipartisan fallback for whatever else Biden and Democratic leaders can’t secure through these would be the last, true “must-pass” legislation remaining: the annual appropriations bills to fund the government. In addition to phase one of “Build Back Better,” Biden is also planning to release the broad strokes of his first annual budget request this week.
Once they’ve determined what the market for bipartisan lawmaking will bear, Democrats have to determine what they, given their slim majorities, can agree on among themselves for a party-line reconciliation bill. The straightforward blueprint for the American Rescue Plan, much of it building off of existing programs, and the urgent need to pass it kept Democrats in line. That meant, though, that all of the pet policies and individual projects that each member or senator has been harboring for the last decade have just been deferred to this next, final package.
Telltale signs of a mess are already materializing. Some members from high-cost states are drawing a line to demand Congress restore the full deduction of state and local taxes that Republicans capped in their tax law—a net tax cut to the wealthy, in a proposal where Democrats are supposed to be raising revenue. Schumer and progressives want to give increasing the minimum wage another shot through reconciliation, even though it may very well end in progressive despair, again, and even though Democrats are far from united on a minimum wage policy. Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to lower the Medicare eligibility age and pay for it by allowing Medicare to negotiate for prescription drugs, two popular policies that will nevertheless draw out very powerful lobbies in opposition. Centrists are beginning to worry about the deficit while simultaneously worrying about the proposed tax increases, a combination that puts downward pressure on the overall price tag. Meanwhile, some progressive legislators and climate activists think a bill on the order of $10 trillion would suffice.
All of this is going to be so, so much harder than the American Rescue Plan was—and senators who had to wait out a five-alarm Joe Manchin fire for half a day when they were trying to pass it wouldn’t describe that process as easy. What brought Democrats to the finish line then was a shared understanding that failure was not an option in fulfilling their promise on COVID relief. As they turn toward “Build Back Better,” the stakes are even higher. Given Republicans’ structural advantage in national politics, and how narrowly Biden’s overwhelming popular majority translated into legislative control for the Democrats, these proposals, and the legislative process they’ll kick off, may well be their last chance to enact major policy changes for another decade. How much they’ve internalized that will determine how much they’re able to pass, and how aggressively they’re willing to move.
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