It’s impossible to overstate the stakes of this week’s legislative horse-trading for the remainder of Joe Biden’s presidency. In fact, what happens this week on Capitol Hill will almost certainly make or break Biden’s entire first-term legislative agenda – and determine the case he and his party can take to voters in the 2022 midterms and beyond.
First, let’s set the scene.
There are two pieces of legislation moving through Congress – both chambers of which are controlled by Democrats – at the moment.
1. The bipartisan Infrastructure bill: This $1.2 trillion legislation, which is focused on so-called “hard” infrastructure like roads, bridges and the like – has already passed the Senate, with 19 Republicans joining all 50 Democrats to support it. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has previously promised Democratic moderates that she will bring the measure up in the House on September 27 (next Monday) and they are aggressively working to hold her to that promise. Meanwhile, liberals in the House have balked at voting for the hard infrastructure bill unless and until they have a vote on a much broader package of government spending – upwards of $3.5 trillion – that the party plans to attempt to pass on a purely partisan basis. Which brings me to…
2. The budget bill: Liberals in the House – like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Pramila Jayapal of Washington – don’t want to vote for the infrastructure bill unless and until they can ensure passage of the much-larger budget bill, which effectively crams all of Biden’s first-term priorities on everything from climate to jobs to immigration and back into a single measure. The problem? Democrats in the Senate don’t have the 50 votes they need to pass anything close to a $3.5 trillion package. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (of Arizona) and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have made clear they will not vote for a measure with that high a price tag, with Manchin suggesting less than half that total might be workable. The other problem? Liberals including Bernie Sanders of Vermont want the package to be even bigger, seeing this as their best chance in a very long time to put a truly progressive vision in place.
Viewed broadly, what is playing out in Congress – and especially among Democrats – right now is a battle for what role Democrats believe the government should play in society going forward.
There’s no question that if Biden gets both his infrastructure bill and anything close to the $3.5 trillion budget bill, it will amount to a massive reinvestment in government and the role it should play in American lives. After decades in which the Democratic Party – led by Bill Clinton’s famous proclamation that the “era of big government is over” – inched ever closer to the smaller-government-is-better-government mantra of the GOP, Biden’s proposals mark a clear break with that view.
Touting the infrastructure plan this spring, Biden cast it in historic terms as a “once-in-a-generation investment in America, unlike anything we’ve seen or done since we built the Interstate Highway System and the Space Race decades ago.”
Which is a bold vision for government re-involvement in nearly every aspect of American life. But it is also a massive gamble by Biden – staking essentially the entirety of his agenda on two pieces of massive legislation that, at least currently, face very uncertain futures in the House and Senate.
What’s more remarkable is that there doesn’t appear to be a “plan B” for Biden and Democrats. The size of these two bills – in terms of cost and scope – as well as the time and attention they have drawn from the administration and Democrats in Congress means that there isn’t going to be a second bite at this apple if the first one doesn’t work. This is it. A one-shot deal.
Looming over all of these machinations are the 2022 midterm elections, which, if history and a handful of recent polling data is any guide, look likely to cost down-ballot Democrats dearly. The unstated but ever-present concern for congressional Democrats as well as the Biden White House is that if the party fails to pass these major agenda items in the coming week(s), they will lose the chance to do so before the 2022 midterms. And if as expected, Republicans take back control of at least one chamber of Congress (if not both), the chances of any major legislation like this passing in 2023 or 2024 is essentially nil.
All of which means that unless Democrats can all get on the same page over the next week, Biden’s expansive agenda will be doomed. And Democrats’ chances of transformational change in how government impacts every day Americans lives will disappear – maybe forever.