It’s a critical time in Congress as lawmakers juggle the threat of a government shutdown, economic turmoil and the fate of President Joe Biden’s agenda. And no one has any idea what will happen.
Lawmakers are scrambling to fund the government before the Sept. 30 deadline. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told Congress the agency will run out of cash by Oct. 18, at which point the country will stop being able to pay its bills, Social Security and veterans benefits will be at risk of serious delay, and the already fragile economy will likely take a downturn.
Republicans are refusing to vote to raise the debt ceiling by mid-October, ostensibly to protest government spending, even though they added trillions to the deficit during the Trump administration. Democrats technically have the ability to raise it on their own through the reconciliation process but say the procedural maneuver is just too tricky and would derail the legislative calendar ― which is very likely why Republicans are refusing to help out.
Meanwhile, the entirety of the Biden agenda is seemingly on the brink of crashing down. Conservative Democrats refuse to move negotiations forward on a reconciliation bill unless the House sends a bipartisan infrastructure bill to Biden’s desk. But progressive Democrats refuse to back the bipartisan infrastructure bill until there’s meaningful progress on the reconciliation bill, which is meant to advance some of the most important aspects of Biden’s agenda, from climate proposals to policies like paid leave.
Trust among the Democratic ranks has been slowly unraveling for months as conservative Democrats show just how far they are from the agenda Biden campaigned and won on. And progressives, who are suddenly aligned with the president and, for the most part, the party’s leadership, don’t believe their moderate colleagues will negotiate in good faith.
“Look, I understand, all of us are frustrated about this,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, told reporters Wednesday. “We are working on the bill. … We’re going to do the best that we can do.”
Republicans leave Democrats to deal with the debt alone.
Congress is facing some major deadlines. One is on Sept. 30, when funding to operate the federal government lapses. Democratic leadership wants to extend funding at current levels through Dec. 3, and so far it looks like they will do so.
The Senate has plans to pass a spending bill, with some additional funds for hurricane relief and Afghan refugees, within the next 24 hours. Republicans more or less seem to be on board.
But Congress has another deadline to meet that Republicans want nothing to do with: The Treasury Department says it will run out of cash to pay the nation’s bills by mid-October.
Congress has had to raise the debt ceiling more than 90 times over the course of history, including three times under Trump, in order to allow the Treasury Department to borrow money to pay the debts incurred from past legislation.
Senate Republicans objected to a House-passed bill this week that would have both funded the government through December and also averted the United States defaulting on its debt holdings. They also objected to an attempt from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to raise the debt ceiling on its own.
It’s not that congressional Republicans want the country to default; they want to make Democrats deal with the debt ceiling, and they want to make it as hard as possible for them to do so. To go it alone, Democrats would have to do it through the reconciliation process, a budget maneuver that allows Democrats to pass a bill with only a simple majority.
“There is no chance, no chance the Republican conference will go out of our way to help Democrats conserve their time and energy, so they can resume ramming through partisan socialism as fast as possible,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.
Democrats already have plans for a reconciliation bill — one that’s supposed to make much of the Biden agenda a reality, from climate proposals to health care, education and worker reforms. Earlier this summer they passed a $3.5 trillion budget resolution that set up the framework to pass such a legislative package — the Build Back Better Act.
To include the debt ceiling, however, they’d have to amend their budget framework. It’s unclear how long that would take. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said it’s possible, though not preferred, Democrats will have to do this. But in the Senate, Democrats are less sure. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called it a “nonstarter” this week.
Amending the budget resolution would open up the process to delay tactics from Republicans. It wouldn’t be easy, and it would put a hard Oct. 18 deadline on the reconciliation process.
That raises another problem for Democrats: They can’t actually agree to what the Build Back Better Act actually is.
The reconciliation bill is in a crisis of its own.
It’s hard to imagine Democrats coming to an agreement on a reconciliation bill within the next three weeks or so. They have already spent weeks in negotiations — and have succeeded in not actually negotiating anything at all.
They’re stuck. And no one seems to know how to get unstuck.
The problem with negotiations around the reconciliation bill begins with a disagreement over whether to begin negotiations around the reconciliation bill.
It’s a drama that goes back several months, when Democratic leadership announced a “two-track” legislative strategy to pass the Biden agenda. One track was the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which would tackle the roads, bridges and ports kind of infrastructure Democrats and Republicans could agree on. The other track was a partisan reconciliation bill, which would address the many social welfare and climate policies Democrats have been campaigning on for decades.
Progressive Democrats weren’t happy with the results of the bipartisan infrastructure bill — negotiated primarily by conservatives and moderates in their party — but their leadership told them the other track would answer a lot of their demands. In June, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave public assurances: She said she wouldn’t bring the bipartisan infrastructure bill up for a vote until the Senate passed the reconciliation bill.
But conservative Democrats didn’t want to start negotiating the reconciliation package until the infrastructure bill was on the president’s desk. Slim Democratic majorities in both chambers made their protest all the more politically powerful.
And so Pelosi began walking back her promise to progressives, scheduling a vote on the infrastructure bill for Sept. 30, which the most progressive House members said amounted to an act of “betrayal.”
“Let me be clear: bringing the so-called bipartisan infrastructure plan to a vote without the #BuildBackBetter Act at the same time is a betrayal,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) tweeted Tuesday. “We will hold the line and vote it down.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) who chairs the congressional progressive caucus, vowed progressives would vote the bipartisan infrastructure bill down.
“We have been clear that our members have to deliver the entirety of the president’s agenda, and frankly we have 96% of all the Democrats in the House and the Senate who agree with us that we’re ready to go forward with the bill as it’s written, the Build Back Better Agenda and the infrastructure bill,” Jayapal said on CNN this week.
On Wednesday, the eve of the scheduled House infrastructure vote, Pelosi changed her tune again: The vote would only be held if there was some “legislative language” out of the Senate on the reconciliation bill that could give progressives assurances that Democrats could proceed in good faith on reconciliation.
One problem: There’s no legislative text. And lawmakers are nowhere close to that either.
“That won’t happen,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told reporters Wednesday. “All we need to do is pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, sit down, and start negotiating in good faith. That’s it.”
In other words, back to square one.
Repeatedly asked Wednesday to give an update on what is in the reconciliation bill, Sanders, visibly frustrated by the line of questioning, finally said: “What bill?”
His comments summed up the chaos of the moment.
One version is what the White House has proposed, with the backing of Democratic leadership and progressives: a $3.5 trillion package that includes a paid leave program, subsidies for electric vehicles, a national child care program, funding for affordable housing, an extension to the boosted child tax credit, expanded benefits for Medicare recipients and much more.
But conservative Democrats have made it increasingly clear they are not comfortable with that size of that package. It’s actually not even clear if they are comfortable with starting negotiations.
After a meeting at the White House last week, Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who co-chairs the moderate Blue Dog Caucus, said she didn’t think Democrats should be prioritizing new programs, which would rule out many major Biden proposals.
“My preference is to work through programs that we already know work, that the infrastructure currently exists and that we are able to measure the impact on the American people,” Murphy said, though she added she is open to some new policies like paid family leave.
In the Senate, the dissension is coming mainly from two senators: Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who for the last week have been in constant meetings with White House aides and Biden himself.
Few in the Senate know exactly where those two senators stand on a reconciliation bill. It’s been reported that Sinema, who largely doesn’t speak to the press, wants the overall package to be less than a third of the size that Biden has proposed.
Manchin, meanwhile, has expressed frustration not only with the overall size, but also with specific policies. He’s wary of provisions that would eliminate fossil fuels, he wants to means-test more programs, and even suggested adding work requirements to the child tax credit.
In a scathing statement Wednesday, the West Virginia senator called the proposed new spending “fiscal insanity,” emphasizing that every program in the reconciliation bill should be means-tested, targeting the neediest families.
The White House has largely taken over negotiations with the two senators.
“It’s a very fluid situation with them and we’ll know when the White House―” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), trailing off. “We’re all talking.”
Sanders, meanwhile, spent the day tempering expectations on when this will all get done.
“This is not some small, little piece of legislation,” Sanders said. “This is six or seven major pieces of legislation, any one of which in a given year would be seen to be very consequential.”