How Biden’s Agenda Could Fall Apart

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S1: So, Jim, when I imagine you right now, I’m imagining you in your home office with a calendar on the wall with September 27th circled in like red ink. Is that an accurate portrayal?

S2: Yes. Yeah, no. It’s just it’s a calendar the size of the entire wall with lots of different, you know, things on it and I just stare at it. I don’t even sleep. I just look at it and try to theorize about how this could play out.

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S1: Jim Newell covers Capitol Hill for Slate. We have a countdown clock.

S2: Yeah, pretty much just my life now.

S1: The reason Jim is so focused on September 27th. That’s next. Monday, by the way, is because this is the day when a lot of Joe Biden’s legislative priorities are going to dramatically collide in Congress just to catch you up. There are a couple of big bills the Democrats are trying to pass right now. One is a $500 billion infrastructure package negotiated along with Republicans in the Senate. The other is a budget reconciliation bill, which doesn’t require Republican cooperation at all. But it’s got this jaw dropping price tag somewhere in the range of $3.5 trillion. Progressives want to pass the big bill first to make sure it becomes law. Moderates want to pass the compromise bill first because spending $3.5 trillion sounds like a pipe dream to them. Nancy Pelosi has said voting will start on September 27th. You’ve talked about it is like a drop dead date for the democratic agenda.

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S2: Well, I think it’s it’s a date where there have been a lot of threats going around and we’ll get into all of that. But it’s kind of the. The point where some of these threats are going to start to come, do

S1: progressives and moderates are basically threatening to tank each other’s priorities if they don’t get their own way? Part of what Jim finds so fascinating here, besides the delightful messiness, is this subtle shift in the democratic center of gravity. Have you seen the progressives this? Angry or empowered since you’ve been covering Congress?

S2: No, no, I’ve never seen them, actually. You know, not to be cruel, but I’ve never actually seen them where I’m like, Oh, they might actually go through with a threat this time.

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S1: That’s it. That’s interesting, you

S2: know, because they’re not they’re not the equivalent of the Freedom Caucus and the Republicans who really don’t care, like if they just screw up everyone else’s plans and the

S1: chaos is the point.

S2: Yeah. Usually, progressives, you know, they they try to use their leverage, but they also understand you kind of have to keep this moving as a team to prevent embarrassing everyone. But this time, I think they really are willing to tank it because they, you know, this is their last shot to get through a progressive agenda for potentially a pretty long time. And I think they want to make sure they have some leverage to make sure that climate change is addressed and everything else that they’ve been running on for years.

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S1: Today on the show, how the Democrats got themselves into this political mess and whether it means President Biden is about to kiss his Agenda goodbye, I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. I’ve got a little bit of a confession to make here. This two track system the Democrats set up where one bill deals with infrastructure and gets negotiated with Republicans and another much larger bill gets passed by Democrats alone. It never made a lot of sense to me. So first thing I asked Jim to explain the logic of this strategy.

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S2: I think there’s like a Capitol Hill logic to it. You know, if you’re like up there all the time, you’re like, Oh, of course, like, this is the way it has to be, you know, but it doesn’t actually make sense on its own terms. But basically, the idea was we can take. You know, a bunch of the really popular bipartisan stuff like fixing roads and try to negotiate that on a bipartisan basis that will please all of the moderates who want to get something done on a bipartisan basis. But then in order to get the progressives on board with that because they need their votes to pass that bipartisan deal, you know, will promise them that in a in a reconciliation bill, a party line bill, we can pursue everything else climate change and all the social spending that they really prefer.

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S1: And we should remind people a reconciliation bill is a budget bill, and it only requires those 50 51 votes in the Senate to get done. So you don’t need the Republicans, theoretically if you have all the Democrats on board.

S2: Yeah, it’s basically, you know, as long as something is is budget related or it can be argued as budget related and passes muster with the Senate parliamentarian, then they can put it into this this process that allows them to not have to worry about a filibuster.

S1: OK, so they decide on this two track process. Did this seem like a good idea to you at the beginning, I mean, you said it was kind of like it makes sense if you have Capitol Hill brain, but now it doesn’t so much. But I wonder back then when you saw these bills splitting off and bipartisan negotiations for some things and then the idea that we’ll have a budget bill for everything else, what did you think?

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S2: I mean, it was like, you know what, like what qualifies as a good idea, you know, is it is this like. You know, the way that James Madison or whatever envisioned legislation getting done? No, but was it, you know? The only real way that Democrats with competing interests on opposite ends of the party could move everything that they wanted to move to the extent that they ever can. Then I think, yeah, it was, it was really the the only way to do it.

S1: Yeah, what you’re saying is that we’ve reached the throw spaghetti at the wall portion. Yeah, yeah.

S2: Our democracy was, you know, you you find out whatever convoluted system there is to fit a square peg in a round hole and you just pursue that. Hmm.

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S1: It seems to me that now with the benefit of like a few months time, we can see how this two track process has fallen apart in a couple of different ways. Like first for this big budget bill, which is the one that’s, you know, become so controversial at this point with the moderates, it gives the Senate parliamentarian a lot of power. That’s that’s the woman who decides, like if the bill is technically a budget bill. And so over the last week, she rejected an effort to include some immigration legislation in the reconciliation bill. So it’s kind of giving this one person a lot of power over like what you can even do. Yeah. And then second, when you have these two bills moving, it doesn’t encourage folks to actually resolve any of the differences they have in terms of legislative priorities. You just have everyone going their own way and then it kind of comes together like a car crash at the end.

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S2: Yeah. I mean, if you could go back to like the original thought with a two track process, it was kind of the both trains would reach the station at the same time, you know, you would get both the bipartisan infrastructure bill done and ready to be passed and sent to the president and the reconciliation bill done around the same time. So then you don’t have to worry about, you know, one faction getting what they want and then leaving the other hung out to dry. But just in practice there, there’s not really any way to do that. You know, if you focus all of your earnings on the infrastructure bill first, as the Senate did, that’s just going to be done and sitting around waiting forever, you know, for the reconciliation bill. So then it leads to a situation where you have the moderates doing everything they can to try and get that bill, you know, signed into law so that then they have leverage in the reconciliation bill and you have progressives trying to, you know, slow that process down to make sure that the reconciliation bill has time to catch up so that, you know, they can force the moderates to negotiate with them on this bill. So it’s just, you know, that’s kind of the problem where it’s led to a lot of threats between each faction trying to get a leg up on the other. You know, the way to resolve these differences, you know, rather than than just, you know, vote threatening to vote to kill the other person’s bill if yours isn’t done first is like you have to sit in a room and make a deal.

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S1: Yeah, I mean, it became pretty clear in the summer just how bitter this fight could get. Like as soon as this bipartisan infrastructure bill passed and it was really celebrated in the Senate, like, I watched the senators talk as they passed it, they were just so happy patting themselves on the back. This is big. This is a big deal.

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S2: They were psyched. They were extremely site. It’s been said that nothing like this has been done in 30 years.

S1: It hasn’t like they were just like, We did it, guys. This is what we come here to do. And then all of a sudden the letters start to fly and you get this letter from, I think it was 10 House moderates to Nancy Pelosi basically saying, You’re going to have to deal with us. Can you describe exactly what went down in the summer and what you thought?

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S2: Sure. So after the Senate passed the their infrastructure deal with the big celebrations and everything you know that was doing, that was kind of a prerequisite to get the Senate on board with kicking off reconciliation. So they and the way that’s done is you have to pass a budget resolution that that sets up reconciliation. So they passed that out of the Senate. But then these 10 moderates led by this guy, Josh Gottheimer, who represents suburban New Jersey. They sent a letter to Pelosi saying We will not vote for the budget resolution setting up reconciliation until we’ve already passed and it’s been signed into law, the Senate infrastructure deal.

S1: And Nancy Pelosi has got a math problem here. She can only lose three votes and still pass this stuff. That’s why back in August, she compromised. She said she’d schedule a vote on the moderates infrastructure plan for September 27th. The problem with that is that that was nowhere near enough time for the progressives to get their reconciliation bill written. Democrats haven’t even agreed how much this bill should cost. Joe Manchin, the senator from West Virginia. He’s already come out against the progressives very publicly.

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S2: We don’t have an urgency, don’t you think we have to debate a little bit more, talk about it and see what we’ve got out there? So you’re not against this, you could support this three and a half trying to plan and not support you. OK, so that is all right now. We’re getting depressed. Yeah. You know this three point five trillion handshake deal that was reached in the Budget Committee, you know, mostly negotiated between Bernie Sanders and Mark Warner. That was just a deal to get it, the budget resolution out of that committee, like they didn’t read in, you know, Joe Manchin or Kirsten Cinema to make sure that they were OK with that number, probably because they wouldn’t be. They knew that, but that was just, you know, they need to have committees to do. It takes to get it out of committee. But it’s not that there was a unified democratic agreement, you know, to spend three point five trillion dollars if you want to compare this to Republicans in 2017. They had this big moment when they’re doing their tax bill. Were they had a deal on the Budget Committee to spend to give themselves basically one and a half trillion dollars of deficit spending to work with? And that was kind of the deal like that, you know, then everyone in the Republican Party knew that they were writing a bill that would cost one and a half trillion dollars. And that is not where Democrats are right now. You know, they have this, this space. They’ve given themselves to write this bill, but they do not have the support to actually write a bill of that size.

S1: Oh, so you’re saying like the first step is to be like, OK, let’s talk about a bill. And then the second step is to be like, OK, here’s the number we’re all comfortable with, and then you can start talking about everything that’s in there.

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S2: Yeah, pretty much. You know, Republicans on the tax bill, they reached a number that everyone is comfortable with and then they, you know, set about fiddling with everything that they could. You know, they did all the negotiations to fit under that number. Democrats just. No one quite knows what the agreed upon number is that everyone is willing to spend. But it’s not three and a half trillion dollars.

S1: But with the House majority so slim, the progressives, they’ve got pulled too. And without their budget reconciliation bill nailed down, they’re threatening to sit out next Monday’s vote. And if that happens, none of Biden’s agenda gets through. It’s just so interesting, because I don’t get any sense from talking to you that anyone heard all of these very public rumblings about like, well, we’re not comfortable with this reconciliation bill. I don’t get the sense anyone heard that and said, OK, how do we make this happen? Like, what do you need to get this done? And instead, it just sort of seemed like keep the trains running on time and set a deadline and keep it moving.

S2: Now, even now, it’s kind of surreal just watching in the House, you know, Nancy Pelosi is still talking about a three point five trillion dollar bill. All of the committees that are writing parts of the bill who just, you know, approved all of their stuff last week, they all wrote as if there’s going to be a three and a half trillion dollar bill. It’s actually, I think it even came in a little bit over that. So they’re all kind of writing it to this fantasy, no, that’s not going to happen. And all these provisions that are not going to make it either, you know, under the hood, they’re just still writing those anyway. And I think what this what’s going to happen is all the committees have sent their their pieces in the budget committee is going to combine those into one bill. And then I think at the rules committee, which is the last place the bill goes before it reaches the floor. I think there’s just going to be huge amendment, completely changing the bill more or less written by Nancy Pelosi. So, you know, like everything you’ve seen kind of so far is kabuki. Like now is when the real bill is written and it’s kind of going to be approved at the rules committee.

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S1: Well, it’s kind of always like that to a certain extent, but you’re sort of outlining a process on steroids.

S2: It it often is that case, but not with a bill this big, you know, you usually don’t just like, rewrite everything. All of the committees have passed already.

S1: When we come back. Yeah, we’re going to have to use the f word filibuster. The point we’re at right now, which seems really, really messy and anxious, it seems to me a point where a president or a vice president comes in and starts putting elbows on necks, you know, like just saying, Hey, this is my Agenda, we’re going to need to get her done. So what? How are we going to do that? Is that happening?

S2: Yes. I don’t know exactly what persuasion techniques, you know, whether you know, euphemism or not, they’re they’re using. But this is as we speak right now, this like revolving door of every Democratic lawmaker from all these, you know, critical groups who all have concerns are going in and out of the White House for all these meetings. That includes both, you know? Moderate and progressive leaders, but also then Pelosi and Schumer and I know Bernie Sanders is going in like,

S1: Wow, really, everyone’s going in the pool here.

S2: Everyone’s going in and it, you know it. It doesn’t look to me like there’s like a plan here, it seems like they’re really lost. It seems like they don’t know what they’re doing and they have no idea how to get out of it. And they’re just got people coming in and out of the White House all day until they figure out some way to to deal with it. But it it does seem like something. It’s reached the difficulty level where you really need the administration to come in and remind everyone that you know this is both his presidency and their Congress is at risk of being a failure here, so they need to figure something out.

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S1: Yeah, I mean, this is all happening at a time when President Biden’s approval rating is not going in a good direction. And midterms are basically right around the corner. So the pressure is real both for the president and for these legislators. You mentioned something that I want to just pause on a second. You’ve said this before that House leadership seems. Like, they can’t handle this moment, like there’s just too much going on, and it sort of needs to be bumped up the pay scale. I’m wondering why you thought that, like what is it that you see where you think this needs more intervention and how do we get there? Because Nancy Pelosi is known for keeping her soldiers in line?

S2: Yeah, I think it reaches a point where you know, you have moderates making one threat. They blow up the whole Agenda. You have progressives making another threat. There blew up the whole Agenda. Pelosi meets with the mall and tries to work it out, but they are not going to be moved. So you need to find a kind of a new mediator here who can who can remind everyone of the stakes. And you know, I don’t think this is a knock against Pelosi, but I think it’s a sign of of the task that they’ve given themselves here, which is they have 221 members and they need 218 to pass something and they are trying to pass. Like four trillion dollars in spending with a couple of trillion dollars in tax hikes, they’re trying to punch the pharmaceutical industry in the face, which is not easy. Like, there’s just so much they’re trying to do here that’s so difficult. You might say they’ve bitten off more than they can chew, although we’re going to find that out. I would imagine that another speaker probably would have quit on this much more quickly or not even taken it on in the first place.

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S1: OK, here’s a thought experiment, which is I feel like part of the reason we got down this two track path was because moderates in the Senate did not want to abolish the filibuster, and so it became important to pass a lot of legislation using reconciliation because that allowed you to avoid the filibuster. Mm-Hmm. But watching what’s happening right now in Washington with all this fighting, it makes me wonder if you think any of this would have played out differently. If the Democrats had gotten rid of the filibuster, like, would that have fixed the problem because it looks like getting rid of the issue of fighting with Republicans, it’s not stopping the fighting in Washington. It’s just changing who is fighting. And it’s certainly not stopping the messiness.

S2: Yeah, I think that with the 50 seat majority, I think people who think that the filibuster is the only thing stopping Democrats from getting anything done are, you know, misleading themselves a little bit. They’re like there wasn’t 50 votes to raise the minimum wage to $15 and nothing, you know? The filibuster got in the way, but they wouldn’t be able to do it anyway. I think there’s a lot of issues like that, but I also think if they got rid of the filibuster, this would be going a lot more smoothly. Why do you say that? Because I don’t think you have to worry about the parliamentarian stripping everything out. And there are also certain things in this bill. They write like they wanted to do this, this clean energy standard and the climate change area. But then they kind of, you know, because it wasn’t strictly budget, they had to rewrite it into this basically a payment program. So you see a lot of the like when stuff is just being kind of retrofit to make it look like a budget item when it really isn’t. I think you would just then if you didn’t have the stress of that, then this would be going a little more smoothly. But yeah, still, it’s hard to cobble 50 votes together for a major Agenda like this? Yeah.

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S1: Hmm. It’s interesting because over the last few years, I’ve come to think about dysfunction and paralysis in Washington as a Republican problem. Like primarily Republicans, were the people getting in the way and saying no to things. And I feel like this is a really good chance to reflect on that and just realize like, Oh, this is actually bipartisan. This isn’t just about one party or another party. This is about the system somehow getting gummed up. Do you see it that way?

S2: Yeah. You know, one thing I guess we should just caution here, like I would still bet on them working this out over them. Everything falling apart and working it out. Can be really messy like it was, it was really, really messy, passing Obamacare like 10 times messier than anything we’ve seen here.

S1: Well, it also took a lot longer to

S2: it took a lot longer, but that was I mean, that was insane, right? And then, you know, it was really, really messy when Republicans, well, they did actually fail to repeal Obamacare, but it was really messy when they did tax reform, too. And I expected this bill. You know, we probably haven’t seen the worst of how it’s going to get yet. But just when you’re trying to do something really hard with really narrow majorities, you should expect a certain amount of turbulence. I just don’t. I think this is really the first week where people have started to entertain the possibility that it might. Not get done. But I think they’ll they’ll figure something out. You know, I do think they could work a little bit to build some trust with each other. That’s the thing that’s been missing is that, you know, all these paranoid ideas about, Oh, we’ve let this bill get passed first and then, you know, they’ll they’ll walk away and everything like, you know, that’s something that people who don’t talk to each other say. So I think that’s kind of the first thing they need to address here.

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S1: And the trust issue is inside the party, right? It’s not like Democrats don’t trust Republicans, although that might be true. It’s that progressive Democrats don’t trust moderate Democrats and vice versa.

S2: I think that the different kinds of trusts are different like progressives, you know, not all of them. Well, I don’t think Josh Gottheimer and his gang of moderates are just doing the bidding of corporate America and lobbyists and everything lobbyists are trying to do is being funneled through them. And so that’s their their paranoia that these guys are just kind of agents of of watering everything down. I think moderates, it’s not so much that they don’t trust progressives. I think they just think that progressives are crazy. You know, I think that they think progress is like trying to do everything. They do everything they’d want. Then, you know, Democrats would lose elections for the next 100 years. That’s kind of how moderates view progressives.

S1: So how are the Republicans feeling right now?

S2: Like, are they just like, Oh my God, they’re so happy.

S1: Nail polish emoji.

S2: Or so they they are absolutely loving this. They don’t really have to do anything now. They can just kind of watch and let Democrats tear their hair apart. Republicans are starting. They’re starting to see the possibility of a total victory here. You know, where Democrats don’t get anything like either of these bills? And I think, you know, they want to be both.

S1: And Jim Newell, thanks so much for joining me.

S2: Thanks for having me.

S1: Jim Newell is a senior politics writer here at Slate. And that that is our show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Mary Wilson, Davis Land, Danielle Hewitt and Elena Schwartz. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You cannot track me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. You’re going to want to stay tuned to this feed tomorrow. Lizzie O’Leary is going to be here with our Friday show. What next? TBD? She’s going to talk about why the U.S. needs to improve its rapid COVID testing game and what that could mean for the future of the pandemic. All right. Catch you back here on Monday.