Now that the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Fiscal Year 2022 budget resolution have passed the Senate, attention in that closely divided chamber will shift to the budget reconciliation bill staffers are already beginning to put together to implement the rest of Joe Biden’s 2021 legislative agenda. As expected, key centrist Democrats — notably Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema — honored an implicit deal to vote for the budget resolution authorizing up to $3.5 trillion in new taxes and spending in exchange for Democratic backing of the infrastructure bill, which they badly wanted to buttress their bipartisan bona fides. But Manchin and Sinema are already making it clear they’ll demand another pound of flesh before voting for the final product.
Sinema laid down her marker in late July, as CNN reported:
Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona announced Wednesday that she does not support a $3.5 trillion dollar budget bill Democrats plan to pass along party lines, saying she doesn’t agree with its price tag, on the same day lawmakers hashed out an agreement on a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package …
“I have also made clear that while I will support beginning this process, I do not support a bill that costs $3.5 trillion — and in the coming months, I will work in good faith to develop this legislation with my colleagues and the administration to strengthen Arizona’s economy and help Arizona’s everyday families get ahead,” Sinema, a moderate and key Democratic negotiator working on the infrastructure deal, said in a statement.
Other than indicating she wants the price tag to come down (the $3.5 trillion authorized in the budget resolution she voted for is a ceiling, not a floor), Sinema was suitably vague, as befits a wheeler-dealer. Manchin issued a longer statement right after the budget resolution passed, but it was more rhetorical huffing and puffing than anything else:
Over the past year, Congress has injected more than $5 trillion of stimulus into the American economy — more than any time since World War II — to respond to the pandemic.
Adding trillions of dollars more to nearly $29 trillion of national debt, without any consideration of the negative effects on our children and grandchildren, is one of those decisions that has become far too easy in Washington.
Given the current state of the economic recovery, it is simply irresponsible to continue spending at levels more suited to respond to a Great Depression or Great Recession — not an economy that is on the verge of overheating.
Manchin either doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to acknowledge that the reconciliation bill is not primarily intended to be a counter-cyclical stimulus measure, but a major restructuring of federal policies to reflect Joe Biden’s and the Democratic Party’s approach to long-term inequality and unmet social needs. And the fretful talk about inflation and debt imposed “on our children and grandchildren” is simply borrowed from the standard Republican talking points du jour.
Though both Sinema and Manchin seem focused on the top-line spending numbers, obviously the West Virginian’s concerns could be substantially addressed by ensuring that spending is paid for through tax measures. And on that topic, Sinema is expected to be a really big problem for Democrats, along with some Senate Democrats with constituencies (e.g., farmers or upper-middle-class voters in high-tax states) sensitive to higher taxes or wanting new tax breaks. The real nightmare scenario for Democrats is a downward spiral in negotiations wherein reducing revenues requires more debt, and reducing debt requires more revenues.
Other than ephemeral considerations of party unity (a particularly low priority for Manchin, who hails from a state that Donald Trump carried by an average of 40 points in the last two presidential elections), the main curb on the damage Senate Democratic centrists can do to the reconciliation bill is Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to bring up the Senate-passed infrastructure bill until reconciliation has safely cleared the upper chamber. She could crush Manchin and Sinema’s precious bipartisan accomplishment if they crush progressive dreams embedded in the reconciliation bill. But Pelosi has a centrist problem of her own, so the negotiations could become complex and sensitive, even before you factor in complications like the need for a debt limit increase and a stop-gap spending bill to keep the federal government open.
The thing to look for is whether the demands of Manchin and Sinema and their allies become more concrete, consistent, and reasonable as the moment of truth approaches. What Pelosi and Chuck Schumer want most to avoid is a situation where multiple Democrats holding leverage over the entire process want mutually exclusive concessions. That way lies potential disaster.