A Brief Guide to Congress’s Packed Summer Schedule

It’s heating up in the Capitol. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Right now, the U.S. House is planning to adjourn for a monthlong summer recess on July 30, with the U.S. Senate planning to do the same a week or so later. But a lot needs to happen before members of Congress can escape Washington for their home states (where they will do the fundraising and campaigning necessary to keep their jobs in D.C.).

With contradictory updates on senators’ late-night negotiations and failed votes that don’t actually mean anything, it’s easy to lose track of the bigger picture. Here’s a brief overview of the major issues members of Congress are focused on — an infrastructure deal and a budget resolution — and their plan for advancing them before the August recess.

Why are the infrastructure and budget reconciliation bills intertwined?

For the most part, partisan polarization means that anything big will only get done this year via a budget reconciliation bill (like the one utilized to enact Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief and stimulus package in March) that is not subject to a Senate filibuster. But an exception has been made for a limited package of “infrastructure” investments, which has become connected politically with the next and even larger budget reconciliation bill Democrats intend to enact before year’s end, as I recently explained:

[P]assing 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.

What’s the status of the bipartisan infrastructure deal?

A so-called “gang” of ten senators from each party has been involved in infrastructure negotiations for many weeks (the number is not accidental, since ten Republicans are needed to pass cloture votes to cut off filibusters); last month, a group of five from each party appeared with Biden in the Rose Garden to announce a “framework” for a $974 billion infrastructure bill — including $579 billion in new spending — with the details TBD.

With the clock running down on the time available before the August recess, those working on the infrastructure details were struggling to get it across the finish line, so Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer gave them a good strong push by scheduling a first procedural vote for July 21 on the yet-to-be-written measure. It predictably failed on a party-line vote, but the Republican “gang” members who voted against it quickly assured Schumer and the whole world that they expected to finish their work within a few days. The biggest sticking point has been determining revenue “offsets” for the spending to keep the package revenue-neutral, particularly after Republicans vetoed an IRS enforcement effort expected to raise around $100 billion.

Even if the deal is quickly sealed and Schumer has 60 votes in hand to end the inevitable filibuster by the bulk of obstruction-bent Senate Republicans, it will take a week to ten days to jump through the procedural hoops needed to pass it. And then the House must act, but it only will if House Democrats can be assured that all 50 Senate Democrats will support the other big pre-recess legislative must-do, the fiscal year 2022 budget resolution.

What’s the timetable for passing the reconciliation bill?

The White House and congressional Democratic scheme all along has been to enact the bulk of what’s left of the Biden 2021 agenda (mostly encompassed in his American Jobs Plan focused on economic investments and the American Families Plan aimed at addressing inequality and other social needs) with another budget reconciliation bill (the last one was for fiscal year 2021; this one would be for the new fiscal year, which begins on October 1). The first step in the plan is passing a fiscal year 2022 budget resolution, which would involve big numbers (a tentative agreement between the White House and Senate Budget Committee Democrats pegged the price tag at $3.5 trillion) and broad instructions to House and Senate committees to put together legislative details for a reconciliation bill.

Democrats want to let staff do the heavy lifting on the reconciliation bill during the August recess, but that means getting the budget resolution passed first. (Much like the later reconciliation bill, the resolution is not expected to attract a single Republican vote in either house.) So Schumer and Nancy Pelosi ideally want to get a bipartisan infrastructure bill and budget resolution done before Congress takes the month off. The implicit understanding is that centrist Democrats will get their bipartisan infrastructure bill enacted in exchange for supporting the budget resolution and later the reconciliation bill. The interconnection is what has made this process so tricky.

What happens if the infrastructure deal falls apart?

If the bipartisan bill is not enacted, the big question then is whether centrist Democrats still support their party’s budget resolution and reconciliation bills. If they (particularly key centrist Joe Manchin) are disgruntled and/or feel they need more “cover” for a party-line budget vote, they might demand more concessions to drive down that $3.5 trillion price tag, which in turn could upset progressives who would prefer a much larger and broader package. The balancing act could test the renowned legislative skills of Schumer and Pelosi.

On a more mechanical level, a failed bipartisan infrastructure bill would mean that the funding needs contained in it would be shifted into the budget bills, which would again put upward pressure on their cost, particularly since Democrats would not feel obliged to honor any compromises made earlier with Republicans.

What else is on the congressional agenda?

In addition to the infrastructure and budget bills, Congress will need to deal with the usual appropriations measures to fund the federal government beyond the end of the fiscal year (September 30), when existing appropriations expire. And it also needs to increase (or suspend) the public debt ceiling. On both these items, a two-year agreement reached between the Trump White House and both parties in Congress in August of 2019 to push big funding fights well past the 2020 elections is running out. Often short-term deals are reached to head off a government shutdown (if appropriations run out) or a debt default (if the debt limit is reached and the federal government cannot fund its obligations), but these issues will complicate everything else in the early autumn.

What will congressional Republicans do?

Outside the ten senators in the bipartisan infrastructure “gang,” nearly all remaining congressional Republicans will devote their time in the weeks ahead to obstruction and posturing. There are bipartisan negotiations still underway (if struggling) on police reform, and appropriators from both parties always find ways to work together to keep the federal government from grinding to a halt. But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already made it clear his party’s message, as Democrats work through their late-summer and early-fall agenda, is to attack it all as “a free-for-all for taxes and spending” and hope that Biden’s approval ratings and ability to keep nervous Democrats together begin to fade.

A Brief Guide to Congress’s Packed Summer Schedule