Veteran Congress-watchers will tell you that our nation’s lawmakers rarely get significant work done without action-forcing deadlines. Sometimes they are very obvious in nature: the end of a congressional session (when existing un-enacted legislation expires and must be reintroduced, reimagined, or discarded), the beginning of a new fiscal year (when appropriations for the previous year run out), the December holiday season, or a national Election Day. A less intuitive but still powerful deadline is the August Recess, a (usually) monthlong break designed to let members fundraise and campaign back home — while avoiding Washington’s swampy weather.
This year, the pressure point of the August Recess is being applied to the two interrelated packages of legislation that have been dominating Congress like a heat dome squatting over the Chesapeake Bay: the bipartisan infrastructure legislation on which an extremely tentative deal was announced at the White House on June 24, and a Fiscal Year 2022 budget resolution needed to authorize a Democrats-only budget-reconciliation bill to enact as much of Biden’s remaining agenda as possible under special rules that don’t allow for a filibuster.
To make an extremely long story short, passing a bipartisan infrastructure deal is important to President Biden (who promised bipartisanship regularly during his 2020 campaign); to Democratic centrists who need, well, “centrist” cover for voting for partisan legislation; and to some Republicans who want to claim a legislative trophy in a Congress controlled by Democrats. Passing a budget resolution (currently pegged in another tentative deal, this one strictly among Democrats, at a cool $3.5 trillion) and the subsequent reconciliation bill is even more important to Biden and to progressive and mainstream Democrats. They are moving together to accommodate these different needs, and the associated fears that one will pass without the other — or that both will fail together.
The negotiations to put together the actual details of the infrastructure deal are being led by the Senate because its filibuster option means ten Republicans — and all 50 Democrats — will be needed to get the package across the finish line. And those talks are dragging on and on, in part because Republicans have vetoed a key revenue piece ($100 billion from tougher IRS enforcement) needed to keep the package deficit-neutral (which both Republicans and Democratic centrists are insisting upon). Since Democrats really need to get the budget resolution done soon in order to get a reconciliation bill enacted in the fall, Chuck Schumer decided to put some very public pressure on the infrastructure negotiators by scheduling a procedural vote on the yet-to-be-drafted bill for this very week, while also calling for the intra-Democratic budget talks to get wrapped up.
In the hyperbolic language of Beltway insiders, Schumer’s move is being described as a “power play” or “hardball.” But having made his point, he can unschedule the vote as easily as he scheduled it, and may have to do so now that Republican senators are squawking about the terrible pressure he is placing upon them.
All this maneuvering should not obscure the fact that the Democratic centrists remain in the catbird seat. In the Senate, notes Punchbowl News, Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, Jon Tester, and Maggie Hassan — who are among the bipartisan-infrastructure negotiators — have conspicuously not yet endorsed the tentative intra-Democratic budget-resolution framework. And there may be enough nervous House Democrats in marginal districts to call into question passage of a budget resolution there as well. So the big question is whether actual passage of the infrastructure deal is essential to these shaky Democrats — in which case, the supposedly onboard Republicans will be tempted to blow it up to kill a reconciliation bill they all bitterly oppose. Alternatively, Biden and Schumer may simply need to demonstrate a good-faith effort to let the deal get done, and/or to make it 100 percent clear to the entire political world that Republicans are the culprits in killing it.
Meanwhile, progressive Democrats in both Houses are perfectly happy to let the infrastructure deal as announced reach fruition and get enacted with their votes so long as the centrists have signed a blood oath to vote for the budget resolution and the reconciliation bill. But they’d be even happier if the bipartisan deal dies while their own legislation proceeds with solid Democratic support. The needs addressed in the bipartisan legislation can simply be tossed into the reconciliation bill with beefed-up funding and a more progressive slant, leaving the GOP to sputter angrily on the sidelines.
For all the talk of immediate deadlines, the August Recess, despite its hallowed nature, is not enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, so the gridlock and the negotiations and the finger-pointing can always be extended a week or two to produce either a deal or the requisite partisan dynamics. Yes, it would delay the Hot Vax Recess members of Congress crave as much as any other pandemic-weary Americans, but that’s life in a polarized Washington.