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WHY IS THE DEMOCRATIC SPENDING BILL SUCH A MESS? This morning’s Politico Playbook quotes a White House official saying the negotiations over the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion social and climate spending bill are a “9-way teeter totter.” They’re at least that. But why?
Because Democrats are trying to stuff all their priorities — welfare spending, universal pre-K, tax increases, Medicare expansion, free community college, prescription drugs, family and medical leave, renewable power and other climate change measures, and more — into one enormous bill.
Each of those priorities has champions on Capitol Hill. For each, there are lawmakers who think that Issue X is the most important issue in the world and must be fully funded in the bill. But the bill’s overall size is shrinking as Democratic objectors, Sen. Joe Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, demand a lower total price tag. That means Democrats are fighting with each other to protect their priorities. “Every attempt to lift up the priority of one party faction ends up crashing another faction’s pet project into the dirt,” reports Politico.
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But why are Democrats doing it this way? After the Senate succeeded in passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill, why have Democrats decided to throw the entire Biden agenda into one bill? Why not do it the right way and consider the priorities in separate bills where they could receive a full debate?
Because Democrats don’t have the votes to do it the right way. They have a tiny, single-digit majority in the House. And they have no majority at all in the Senate, which is tied 50-50, forcing Democrats to rely on Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties.
Early in his presidency, Joe Biden listened as many Democrats urged him to Go Big. They urged him to pass massive legislation on the model of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The only problem was, Biden didn’t have the votes to do it. FDR and LBJ had huge legislative majorities when they passed those bills. Biden doesn’t.
So now, the only way Democrats can get around the filibuster to pass a partisan measure with a 50-50 tie, plus Harris’s tiebreaker, is to use the reconciliation process. But they can’t do that every day. So they have thrown everything they want into one giant reconciliation bill — they would have thrown more, such as immigration reform, if the Senate parliamentarian had allowed it. Then, the theory goes, they can pass the one big bill on a 50-50 tie, with Harris making the difference.
But first, they have to get all 50 Democratic senators on board for the bill, which hasn’t even been written yet. They can’t afford to lose a single one. And that gives enormous power, not just to Manchin and Sinema, but to any Democrat who holds out on the demand that something be included in the bill.
So now, the bill is shrinking. The latest estimates are that it might come in around $1.9 trillion, which is still huge — far too big — but a lot less than $3.5 trillion, which was a lot less than the $6 trillion or $7 trillion package the party’s progressive wing originally wanted. And the process has become a “9-way teeter totter.”
If you want to skip to the end of the story, the Democrats will ultimately pass something. It will be big — too big — by any reasonable estimation, but it will fall well short of the party’s FDR- and LBJ-sized ambitions. It won’t be because of Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema’s scheming. It will be because the Democrats’ ambitions far outstripped their numbers. And no amount of big talk and fawning media attention will change that.
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