Dems scramble to keep their spending dreams alive

There are lots of moving parts to the Democrats’ struggle to spend trillions of dollars via bipartisan infrastructure legislation and Democrat-only-backed reconciliation. The debt ceiling has now been thrown into the mix for good measure. This piece in the Washington Post does a good job describing the Democrats quandary.

It simplifies things considerably if one starts from the reality we have emphasized throughout — Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are in total control of what can and cannot be enacted through reciliation. For purposes of a reconciliation package, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

Recognizing this reality, belatedly it seems to me, Joe Biden spent part of his day negotiating with Manchin and Sinema in what the Post reports as a series of meetings. According to the Post, however, these negotiations “did not immediately appear to produce an agreement over the final size of the spending package.”

Biden and congressional Democratic leaders feel an urgency in reaching an agreement on the final size of the reconciliation package. That’s because the vote on infrastructure is set for Thursday, and leftists in the Democratic House caucus don’t want to vote for that package until they know what will be in the reconciliation deal. In fact, some of them have said they won’t.

The Democrats could have avoided the time crunch. They could have accepted reality and worked from the beginning to come up with a reconciliation package agreeable to Manchin and Sinema. But the leftist tail (quite large to be sure) wanted to wag the dog, and Joe Biden was fine with that. Now it’s two centrists non-leftists who are doing the wagging.

Will leftist Democrats vote down the infrastructure bill in the absence of an agreed upon number for the reconciliation package? I doubt it.

One trillion dollars for infrastructure isn’t peanuts. It’s likely that House Dems will snap it up when push comes to shove. Indeed, Nancy Pelosi wouldn’t be allowing the vote to take place on Thursday if she thought the infrastructure bill would be nixed.

Some lefty Dems will vote against the infrastructure bill. But this legislation probably has enough Republican support to pass nonetheless. Or so it seems to me.

But what about reconciliation? What will Manchin and Sinema accept in a reconciliation deal?

The Post reports that, according to three Democrats, Sinema has told Biden she wants a package of less than $2 trillion. As for Manchin, it’s not even clear he wants any package at this time on top of the $1.1 trillion for infrastructure. Once he gets that, he may call time out on reconciliation. However, I think there’s a good chance he would go along with a package of $2 trillion or less.

But agreeing on an amount is just the beginning of a solution for the Dems. They must also agree on what gets cut, and that means saying “no” a lot. The Post outlines some of the difficulties in this regard:

A group of Democrats led by House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) on Thursday, for example, stressed that the party needed to expand Medicaid as part of their upcoming package, hoping to stave off cuts in health-care provisions that count among the most expensive in the still-forming bill.

A wide-ranging group of liberal lawmakers, led by Reps. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) and Katie Porter (D-Calif.), sent their own letter last week to protect billions of dollars in new child-care assistance, citing the hardships many working parents faced during the pandemic. Still a third group including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote a missive to “strongly urge” Democratic leaders to preserve $30 billion for a civilian climate corps that might allow young people to help fight global warming.

One way to lower the price tag is to limit eligibility for programs like free community college. However, it’s doubtful that means-testing alone will suffice to slash a $3.5 trillion program almost in half.

Can the Democrats work through the difficulties and get a reconciliation package through both chambers? Maybe, but it could take a long time. And once the infrastructure legislation is passed (assuming this happens) there probably will be less urgency about passing reconciliation.

This, I assume, is why Bernie Sanders today urged House Democrats to vote against the infrastructure bill. He wants them to preserve their “leverage” in securing their other spending priorities in talks with non-leftists like Manchin and Sinema. But I don’t believe they have appreciable leverage in any event. Not over Manchin, anyway.

Are the Democrats behind the eight-ball, then? It looks like they might be, but I’m not sure they really are. They might still end up with a total spending package (infrastructure plus reconciliation) of around $3 trillion.

That would be a major accomplishment for a party that controls as few Senate and House seats as the Democrats do. Parties with considerably larger margins have accomplished considerably less.

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