AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris
On Friday, the Senate voted 69-28 to pass a stopgap spending bill and avoid a government shutdown – at least until February 18. But as Members headed home for the weekend, they could hardly have felt any real sense of relief. Despite avoiding one disaster, Congress must still address the debt ceiling, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said the government could hit its borrowing limit as soon as December 15, and the Senate must also reach an agreement on the National Defense Authorization Act – the bill that funds the military – before the end of the year. The biggest looming legislative battle, however, is undoubtedly the one over Biden’s multi trillion-dollar spending package, dubiously titled the “Build Back Better Act” (BBB).
The House passed its version of the BBB on November 19 with an official price tag of $1.75 trillion (although outside groups have warned that the actual cost could rise to as much as $5 trillion). Every Republican and one Democrat, Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, voted against the bill. In one final act of defiance, Republican leader Kevin McCarthy spoke on the House floor for more than eight hours in order to delay passage of the bill. (Interestingly, in doing so, McCarthy broke current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s own record for longest floor speech.)
The House’s vote on the bill came after months of delay that left many progressives in both chambers grumbling about both the speed of the deliberations and the overall size of the package. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said early in the negotiations that $3.5 trillion “should be a minimum,” and House Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) had said that a $1.5 trillion figure floated by Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) was “too small to get our priorities in.”
However, despite the lower price tag, House progressives have nonetheless managed to cram an astounding number of their left-wing wish list into the bill. It includes a massive expansion of the welfare state, which conservatives say would create a “cradle to grave” dependency on the federal government. It also includes $550 billion in “climate initiatives” (while only $3 billion in pandemic preparedness), hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for “equity” programs, and amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants, among other provisions.
In addition to warning what the bill would do to the social fabric of the country, Republicans have raised concerns that the spending plan would worsen already record-high inflation and would exacerbate worker shortages through the massive expansions of government welfare outlined in the bill. According to an analysis from the Congressional Budget Office, the plan would increase the deficit by $367 billion over 10 years—and the true number is almost certain much higher.
As debate begins in the Senate, the ultimate fate of the BBB will likely hinge on Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), the two ostensibly moderate Democrats in the chamber. While Chuck Schumer bears the title of Senate Majority Leader, the reality inside the Capitol is that nothing happens in a 50-50 Senate without the approval of “Sinemanchin” as some have begun referring to the all-important voting bloc. Both Senators have indicated that passage of the bill will likely have to wait until after Christmas, something that will undoubtedly only further enrage progressives who have made Sinemanchin the target of their ire. Such a delay would also run up against Chuck Schumer’s promise to have the bill on Biden’s desk before the end of the year, a goal that looks increasingly unrealistic with each passing day.
Specifically, Manchin has raised concerns about including a paid leave program in the bill, as well as the proposed expansions to Medicare. He has also opposed Green New Deal-type environmental policies in the bill like a methane fee that would likely devastate the energy industry in his home state of West Virginia. Sinema is also reportedly opposed to the methane fee, which would threaten oil and gas jobs in her home state of Arizona.
But while the far left may direct all their rage at Manchin and Sinema for not submitting to the radical progressive agenda, the bill faces other procedural hurdles as well. Under Senate rules, the bill must comply with what is known as the “Byrd rule,” which outlines what can and cannot be included in budget bills. The Senate parliamentarian, who is in charge of determining if a bill complies with the Byrd rule, has indicated that provisions like mass amnesty may run afoul of the rule.
In short, even if Senate Democrats can agree on what should be in the bill – which at this point is far from a certainty – Senate rules may prevent Democrats from including many of the more radical provisions in the House bill. While Democrats could simply vote to ignore the rules and pass the bill anyway, such a blatant power grab and break with decades of precedent is unlikely to earn approval from Sinema and Manchin.
Regardless of the internal dynamics at play, the stakes could not be higher for both sides heading into the push for final passage. After a turbulent first year, Biden and Congressional Democrats believe they desperately need a win to try and right the ship ahead of the 2022 midterms. That desperation may only increase pressure from far-left voices on Democrats to do things like eliminate the filibuster in order to ram through progressive policies. Republicans are similarly dead set on preventing passage of the bill at all costs. Although Republicans would undoubtedly like to kill the entire bill, they have already achieved minor successes by forcing Democrats to back down from some of the more outlandish provisions in earlier iterations.
After a year of exhausting legislative battles, the biggest one may now be just beginning.