The Senate returned Monday for a few more weeks of work before its annual August hiatus, with only a couple of items left on its to-do list. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wants to pass the bipartisan infrastructure deal negotiators reached in late June. He also wants to pass a budget that will allow Democrats to use the reconciliation process—you know it by now—to later pass the remainder of their spending agenda on child care, health care, climate mitigation, and other party-line priorities. This does not mean passing the reconciliation bill itself—that’s something Democrats would do when they returned in the fall. This is just the first step.
So one vote on a bill with popular items like building roads and bridges on which there’s already a bipartisan deal, and another vote just to set up a process for the fall. How difficult could it be?
Extremely difficult, running right up to the edge of impossibility.
You may recall a few weeks ago when a group of 10 senators—five Republicans and five Democrats—celebrated with President Joe Biden the infrastructure “deal” they had just reached, and which the president had just blessed. If you don’t remember that, it’s because the celebration was premature, and by later that afternoon Republicans were running from it. The proximate cause of this turnaround was statements from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Biden in which they said they wouldn’t act on the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure deal until they also had in hand a reconciliation bill, pledges they made to shore up support among progressives who didn’t feel the bipartisan deal accomplished enough. Though it was no surprise that Democrats always intended to pursue a reconciliation bill for their partisan priorities, the linkage between the two made Republicans feel like pawns in a broader Democratic scheme.
Biden walked back his statement and has been eagerly touting the bipartisan deal ever since, and Republicans are insisting Pelosi do the same. (They might be waiting a while.) But as senators and their staff work to draft the deal into legislative language, there are some fairly predictable policy issues arising that threaten to blow up the whole thing.
The deal was touted by its negotiators as fully paid for—i.e., it won’t increase the deficit. Each dollar spent is matched by a dollar saved. But … what if that’s not the case? Negotiators are working with the Congressional Budget Office this week to “score” the proposal, and members are getting a sinking feeling that the ledger may not balance. If it doesn’t, and negotiators can’t agree on adequate changes, there won’t be enough Republican support to pass the bill. In the more conspiratorial realm, meanwhile, conservative outside groups (and their pals in the United States Senate) believe that one major funding source in the bill—better IRS enforcement to capture unpaid taxes—will lead to the Biden administration targeting conservatives. It’s not just that the funding sources may not add up. It’s that one of the biggest ones has earned Republican antipathy.
In short, there isn’t really a bipartisan deal yet, the votes for the deal aren’t there yet, and it will take at least the rest of the week for these problems to be solved, which is valuable time down the tube.
“A lot of these deals die a thousand deaths before they actually get through,” Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a Democratic moderate, tried to reassure reporters about the viability of the proposal Tuesday.
A reporter asked him if he was saying the deal was dying.
“No!” he said. “I’m not saying that at all.”
And then there’s the budget. Both chambers have to pass a budget resolution by a simple majority that allows for reconciliation, the process through which the party in power can bypass the filibuster to pass legislation that meets certain conditions (mainly that it’s strictly focused on tax and spending matters). The budget resolution would allot a total amount of money available under reconciliation and delegate which committees handle which pieces and for which purposes. It’s boring, but it allows the more exciting work to come.
Passing a budget resolution wasn’t a problem the last time Democrats tried it, during the COVID relief package debate in the dog days of winter. Biden asked for a $1.9 trillion bill, Democrats were mainly united on what was needed, and so they passed a budget resolution allowing for a $1.9 trillion reconciliation bill.
This time, though, there’s much broader difference of opinion. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Budget Committee chairman, has proposed a sweeping $6 trillion plan. That, obviously, nauseates moderates, who’d prefer something that’s either half of that or lower. Some Democrats would be OK financing the whole package through debt; West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin wants the entire thing paid for; others are in the middle. Some want to leave space within the budget for addressing immigration, expanding Medicare, and everything else on Democrats’ agenda—this is, after all, likely their last big shot at enacting their agenda before their brains transition to midterm election mode. Others would like to steer clear of more controversial topics. All of this makes it much harder to reach an agreement even on the scope of the bill, which may end up being the largest bill Congress has ever passed, if they pass it.
Democrats believe they could reach a “framework” for a deal, however, in the coming days. But as we’ve seen with the bipartisan infrastructure talks, a “framework” for a deal is not a deal. And even if Democrats do reach an agreement on this framework allowing for, say, a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, does that seem like a development that would help with the bipartisan infrastructure talks, or send Republicans running (faster) for the hills, knowing that they won’t be able to trim Democrats’ ambitions?
What Schumer does control—and it’s not a small thing—is the clock. He has raised the horrifying specter of extra days, nights, and potentially even weeks of work if that’s what it takes to untangle and pass these bills. There may be no bigger focusing mechanism in Congress than the prospect of missed vacation time.