Democrats are hurtling toward their most consequential stretch of legislating since the passage of Obamacare, with major decisions left unmade as they wrangle over the size and scope of President Joe Biden’s sweeping domestic agenda.
July and August will render a decisive verdict on Democrats’ so-called “two-track” strategy of enacting Biden’s jobs and families plans via twin bills, one with GOP support focusing on physical infrastructure and the other on a partisan spending plan centered on fighting climate change, increasing child care and raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
Work on both items is nearing a climax, with senators in both parties drafting that centrist bill for a July Senate vote and the Senate’s 50 Democrats haggling over how big to go in their own party-line endeavor.
Some House moderates are urging party leaders to focus squarely on the bipartisan bill, while many liberals remain skeptical it will happen at all — and Speaker Nancy Pelosi has threatened to sideline it without an accompanying Democratic package. A failed bipartisan result would force Democrats to write one huge spending bill marrying all their priorities.
Taken together, Democrats’ decisions in the coming days will define what may be the largest spending bill in history, offering their best chance at reshaping the federal government for years to come. Biden’s party has a rare opportunity with full control over Congress and the White House, but its majorities are so slim that even attempting the two-part move will be a daredevil act.
“If you add the two plans together, it would be the biggest bill in the history of the country,” said House Budget Chair John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). “There’s no way it’s going to be easy.”
After three months of plodding negotiations, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has laid out an aggressive timetable that envisions passage of both a budget resolution to allow a huge Democrats-only tax and spending package plus a vote on a deal with Republican centrists to plow nearly $600 billion into roads, bridges and broadband. Schumer will reiterate the timetable in a Dear Colleague letter to Democrats on Friday, according to a Democratic aide, and warn of the possibility of working long nights, weekends and into the August recess to finish that work.
The majority leader has been constantly dialing up White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, as well as his members in the bipartisan group and committee chairs in charge of a party-line spending bill, whose work will run into the trillions.
Every Democrat knows that the partisan legislation could be this year’s last big train to which they can hitch their long-sought priorities, and demand is high. Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wants Medicare expansion, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is pressing for immigration reform and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) is pushing her colleagues on child care spending. A whole slate of progressives want a major climate focus. And there will be restraints on spending from moderates and from the Senate parliamentarian on what can pass muster and avoid a GOP filibuster.
While Sanders initially suggested spending $6 trillion to complement the bipartisan deal, more moderate members are likely to tamp that down to $4 trillion or even lower — depending in large part what moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) agree to. Asked if she had a number in mind, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) replied: “Yeah, $6 trillion.”
In the House a band of centrists — already anxious about their fragile majority — are fretting over the party-line bill. And the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are flexing their muscle and laying out demands, which will cause consternation among the party’s moderates.
With that policy maelstrom still churning, leadership may have to threaten cutting some of Congress’ beloved August recess to drive hard decisions and get bills on track to meet Schumer’s aggressive timetable.
“It will be used as a way for us to get the job done, the threat of losing August recess when we can go home,” Duckworth said. “Maybe that will be used as a carrot on the end of a very big stick.”
Lawmakers will likely receive more clarity on the details of both the bipartisan plan and its financing as well as the contours of the partisan budget reconciliation spending bill early next week. While both Budget Committee Democrats and the bipartisan group have been aiming to wrap their work by then, no one is setting hard deadlines yet.
“We are really working hard to try to get something that can get to the floor in the next couple of weeks,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), one of more than 20 senators working on the bipartisan bill. “But I don’t want to be too specific. Because in my experience, deadlines always slip a little bit.”
There’s also the question of whether Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell might end up opposing the package, which could scuttle any effort to get 10 GOP senators on board. McConnell spent the July 4 break barnstorming Kentucky, saying he thought the bipartisan bill had a “decent chance” but also asking that it be “credibly” financed. The plan is currently to use increased IRS enforcement, unspent coronavirus aid and infrastructure privatization to cover the bill’s price tag.
Financing some of the trillions in spending on Democratic-only priorities will be even trickier, considering the party wants to raise taxes on both large companies and capital gains for wealthy people. Manchin has suggested more modest increases than Biden, but his support for both the spending plan and rolling back some of the 2017 tax cuts law is a breakthrough in and of itself.
“The Senate Dems should look at each other and say: ‘We’re committed to doing a reconciliation bill.’ And I know Manchin is,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has suggested the $4 trillion number.
A successful July and August will require intense coordination by Schumer, Pelosi and committee leaders. They’ll need to make sure the bipartisan bill can pass both the Senate and the House and that its paired reconciliation bill has lockstep support in both chambers, a more complex dance than Democrats’ swift passage of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid law in March.
Already there’s been plenty of infighting, so much so that before the July Fourth recess Yarmuth and other party leaders pleaded with their members to stop making policy demands and drawing red lines or they’d never find the support to pass it.
Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), who has already declared he will vote against the House’s budget resolution, said “it’s time to stop” spending after the massive Covid package. At the moment, House leaders can only afford to lose a couple more Democrats.
“When I was talking to the White House legislative team the other day, they said, ‘Oh, I bet you lie awake at night counting dollars on this,'” Yarmuth said. “I said, ‘No, I lie awake counting votes.'”
Laura Barrón-López, Marianne LeVine and Lisa Kashinsky contributed to this report.