Democrats in Congress Need to Cut to the Chase With a Deal on Everything

Nancy Pelosi is in a high-stakes game with members of her own party. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

As Washington pols and journalists were focused on the tragic developments in Afghanistan in recent days, some new drama emerged on the domestic front over the timing and content of must-pass legislation, with divisions sharpening among Democrats. For weeks now, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been warning that the bipartisan infrastructure package would not be brought up in that chamber until a FY 2022 budget resolution and reconciliation bill had cleared the Senate, too. Pelosi’s aim has been to make sure Democratic “centrists” in both the House and Senate don’t bail on the big prize — the reconciliation bill — or make unreasonable demands about its size and shape once they have their precious bipartisan symbol in hand.

Chief Senate Democratic centrist wheeler-dealers Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have been cautiously testing how far they can push Democratic progressives on the reconciliation bill before endangering the infrastructure bill, suggesting that their votes for the budget resolution capping the reconciliation bill at $3.5 trillion doesn’t mean they will vote for a package of that size. But on August 12, nine of their House counterparts upped the ante significantly, demanding that Pelosi bring up and pass the infrastructure bill before even finishing up work on the budget resolution, much less beginning work on the reconciliation (which is expected to take weeks, maybe months, to put together, as you might expect from legislation implementing Biden’s massive American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan).

Pelosi countered with a public offer to create a “rule” (the House procedural mechanism for scheduling and structuring floor votes) that would include both the infrastructure bill and the budget resolution — essentially a pledge that one would pass in conjunction with the other. But that doesn’t mean the infrastructure bill would necessarily come up first, and it certainly wouldn’t keep Pelosi from holding back the infrastructure bill until her original demand of Senate passage of both the budget resolution and the reconciliation bill were met first. While this looked like a bid from Pelosi for talks toward a compromise, the House centrists rejected it in a statement (per Punchbowl News):

While we appreciate the forward procedural movement on the bipartisan infrastructure agreement, our view remains consistent: We should vote first on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework without delay and then move to immediate consideration of the budget resolution.

The centrists aren’t just circling Pelosi with demands; behind her are Democratic progressives in both chambers who grudgingly supported the infrastructure deal in order to ensure party unity on the budget resolution and the reconciliation bill. And it’s also important to note that Democratic factions themselves are not necessarily on the same page when it comes to the crucial reconciliation bill. Perhaps Manchin and Sinema just want a less pricey package. But as my colleague Jonathan Chait recently observed, most of the rebellious House centrists appear to want provisions (particularly tax benefits for wealthy donors and constituents) that will boost the price of the bill.

Pelosi’s original plan was to pass the budget resolution the minute the House returns briefly next week, and then give staff from both Houses and from the White House time to work on the highly complex reconciliation bill. While that timetable can still work from a mechanical point of view, it’s increasingly obvious that key Democrats need to sit down and work out everything now in sufficient detail to ensure that Biden’s hopes of both an infrastructure bill and a reconciliation bill aren’t dashed by intraparty divisions or misunderstandings. That means a pretty clear understanding of what will be in the ultimate reconciliation bill; how much spending will be involved; and how it will be paid for in revenues. It’s too late for any more delaying tactics aimed at increasing leverage for anyone.

Once House and Senate Democrats are all onboard with a comprehensive deal, Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and, yes, Joe Biden, will be in a position to threaten hell on earth for any Democrat from any faction who tries to sabotage any of the key legislation. The deal-making window will be closed, and at that point, Pelosi and Schumer can roll out the votes however they wish. Indeed, given what is happening in Afghanistan, perhaps Democrats will all agree to give Biden his infrastructure bill so he can have a Rose Garden ceremony and a kegger to celebrate the bipartisan accomplishment. But that can only happen if all the deals go down immediately. Not only will this approach simply accelerate what needs to happen eventually, it could also keep the infrastructure-reconciliation combo platter from becoming even more complicated by debt limit and appropriations “cliffs” in the autumn.

The key factor here is for all Democrats to realize that the success or failure of Joe Biden’s presidency is at stake — not next year or in 2023, but now. If either the infrastructure bill or the reconciliation bill falls apart, the already high odds of Democrats losing their governing trifecta in 2022 will go up sharply, making all those House centrists toast and emboldening Republicans to go for total power in 2024 before even thinking about any sort of positive legislative agenda of their own. The August recess can wait.

Democrats Need to Cut to the Chase With a Deal on Everything