Now that Congress has temporarily dealt with the cluster of must-pass legislative priorities that had consumed Washington for several weeks, political speculation has refocused on the top priorities that Democrats, who ostensibly control the federal government, have set for themselves. The two biggies, of course, are final action on the Build Back Better budget-reconciliation bill, which is languishing in the Senate, and some sort of voting-rights legislation, which Republicans have successfully filibustered to death all year long.
The latest buzz is that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is letting it be known that he is abandoning his earlier pledge to get BBB done by Christmas and instead wants to move first on voting rights. This suggestion has created all sorts of confusion and consternation in Democratic circles. It upsets progressives, who let the bipartisan infrastructure legislation reach Biden’s desk last month on the promise that BBB wouldn’t be far behind. And it worries many others who have no way of knowing how the big differences between Senator Joe Manchin and the rest of the congressional Democrats will be resolved.
Here are a few considerations to keep in mind:
The deadlines for both BBB and voting rights are self-imposed.
Technically BBB, a.k.a. the FY 2022 Budget Reconciliation Bill, doesn’t have to be enacted before the end of the 2022 fiscal year, which is next October. Some Democrats want to keep open the option of enacting a FY 2023 budget-reconciliation measure before the 2022 midterms, which would be difficult if the current bill is still stuck in the queue. And one action-forcing device is that the expanded Child Tax Credit, which was created in the American Rescue Plan stimulus legislation earlier this year, will expire at year’s end. At this point, though, it’s not entirely clear that there will be any CTC in the final version of BBB, so that’s less than a hard deadline.
As for voting rights, there’s no real timeline at all. Some of the abuses that voting-rights legislation is aimed at preventing or banning (depending on which bill you look at), such as aggressive gerrymandering and new voter-suppression laws, are already happening every day. It would, of course, be nice to get a set of federal guarantees for voting rights and election security in place before Republicans try to sweep them all away in or after 2024, but that’s aspirational.
More to the point, the deadlines for these pieces of legislation were set by the Democratic leaders themselves (see, most recently, Schumer and his BBB-by-Christmas edict).
Democrats’ BBB hang-ups are not small and technical.
At one point, it was possible to hope that the differences between principal
Democratic holdout Manchin, the White House, and other congressional Democrats were minor enough that another big push from somewhere might get the job done. But as my colleague Eric Levitz noted, the differences are basic and structural:
For months, the senator has suggested that he will not support new spending far in excess of $1.75 trillion, that he would like every cent of that spending to be offset with new taxes, and that cutting the bill’s costs by phasing out programs Democrats intend to eventually make permanent is a gimmick that would not satisfy his demand on the spending cap. As Manchin told Politico back in September, “Once you start doing something, it becomes ingrained in it. We want to do it and do it right and finance it.”
This last concern is the major roadblock in today’s negotiations.
There’s tweaking that. And if Manchin gets his way and BBB is restructured to focus on a few priorities that are fully paid for and permanent, a lot of earlier deals in which other congressional Democrats engaged will have to be relitigated.
A voting-rights breakthrough may still be out of reach.
The most mysterious feature in the rumors swirling around Washington right now involves voting-rights legislation, which looked truly dead by filibuster as recently as, well, now. Manchin has repeatedly rejected the idea of any “carve-out” from the Senate filibuster for voting-rights legislation, including his own Freedom to Vote Act (a lite version of Senate Democrats’ earlier, comprehensive For the People Act). A Politico piece recently offered some guesses:
Ideas being floated … include changes to the amendment process and how the Senate debates legislation and nominations. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has backed the rules-reform discussions, which are being led by Kaine, as well as Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.). Other options raised by Democrats — and Manchin himself — include a standing filibuster, which would require senators to continue debating on the floor rather than needing 60 votes to end debate on a bill.
There’s a problem with these ideas, of course: During this year’s long series of debates on voting rights, a grand total of one Senate Republican (Lisa Murkowski) has supported any expansion or restoration of federal voting rights. Nearly all Senate Republicans have echoed the new GOP orthodoxy that voting-rights discrimination is a thing of the past and that any federal mucking around with the prerogatives of states to control voting and election laws would be a “power grab.” It is unfathomable how any of the tenth-of-a-loaf measures under discussion with Manchin would make the enactment of voting-rights legislation possible. And if it is impossible, why hold up BBB to show the world another Democratic failure — one that many Democratic base voters and activists find inexplicable?
Schumer needs to stop making promises he can’t keep.
Schumer obviously isn’t the villain in this frustrating delay game; he doesn’t have much leverage over Manchin or his fellow obstructer, Kyrsten Sinema, and he doesn’t want to forfeit support from both of them for future initiatives.
But he could begin keeping internal deadlines for doing this or that to himself so as not to set up his party for failure again and again. It’s not the end of the world if Democrats fail to achieve enactment of either BBB or voting-rights legislation by year’s end. But expectations that are never raised in the first place are much less likely to be dashed.