As hard it was to seal a bipartisan deal on infrastructure, the coming fight over a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package will be even more difficult for congressional Democrats. Any mistakes could easily blow up all of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.
The intraparty disagreements over the scope of the package, which includes money for housing, climate, health care and more, are already spilling out into the public. Several moderates have expressed concerns with the price tag, citing its impact on the deficit. One senator has ruled out the topline number entirely.
“While I will support beginning this process, I do not support a bill that costs $3.5 trillion — and in the coming months, I will work in good faith to develop this legislation with my colleagues and the administration,” Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), a lead negotiator of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, said earlier this week.
House progressives, meanwhile, are threatening to vote down the $1.2 trillion bipartisan bill that includes money for roads, bridges and waterways that Sinema helped negotiate if the Senate reduces the size of the reconciliation package. They argue that $3.5 trillion is insufficient and already the product of a Senate-brokered compromise.
“Without a reconciliation package that meets this moment, I’m a no on this bipartisan deal,” Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), a newly elected progressive, tweeted in response to the Senate’s proposal.
It’s still early in the process, and Democrats are staking out their positions now in order to shape the path of the bill, which isn’t expected to be written until Congress returns from its annual summer recess in September. But the bicameral staredown could get ugly as both sides draw red lines over their favored issues.
What makes the job tougher for Democrats is their narrow majorities in both the House and Senate. They can afford to lose just three Democratic votes in the House, giving members leverage over the process. They can’t afford to lose any votes in the Senate due to GOP opposition to another spending measure, requiring all 50 Democratic senators to vote for a reconciliation bill.
At the moment, Democratic leaders are sounding upbeat.
“We will move forward on both tracks,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) vowed Thursday after the Senate voted to advance the bipartisan infrastructure bill. “I’m proud of my Democratic caucus, every one of them voting yesterday for this bill and all pledging to go forward on the second track as well.”
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who initially pushed for a spending measure totaling $6 trillion, also expressed confidence about the party coalescing around a budget resolution next week. The document serves as an outline with instructions for congressional committees responsible for drafting the bill.
“It is my absolute conviction that you’re not going to have a bipartisan bill unless you have a reconciliation bill of $3.5 trillion,” Sanders said. “Next week we’re gonna have 50 votes in order to pass a $3.5 trillion budget resolution.”
But the package may not total $3.5 trillion in the end if moderates like Sinema have their way. And she’s not alone. Other senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mark Kelly of Arizona, and Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, are of a similar mind when it comes to taxing and spending. Kelly and Hassan, in particular, are likely to face tough reelection fights next year, something that could factor into their thinking on the $3.5 trillion measure.
Democrats may also run into trouble on major policies they hope to tuck into the reconciliation package, which is widely seen as the last major legislation that has a chance of passing before the congressional midterm elections next year.
President Joe Biden, for example, on Thursday endorsed including a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented “Dreamers” brought to the U.S. as children. Dozens of congressional Democrats and immigration activists have been pushing him to do so. But it’s unlikely that such a proposal will survive the strict rules governing reconciliation, which only allow for policies that affect the federal budget.
The parliamentarian, a referee in charge of Senate procedure, already stymied Democrats earlier this year when they tried to include a minimum wage hike in their last reconciliation package. She could do so again on immigration depending on how the proposal is tailored.
Climate is another issue that could give Democrats heartburn. The party has promised “big and bold” action to fight climate change after years of inaction on Capitol Hill. Progressives have also made it clear they will only support the bipartisan infrastructure bill if climate change is addressed in a major way in the reconciliation process.
But Manchin, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who hails from a coal-producing state, has already expressed concerns about some of the climate provisions in the package. The bill, Democrats say, would make 80% of electricity generation “clean,” cutting national carbon emissions in half by 2030, and establishing a clean energy standard that prioritizes renewable energy sources.
“I just believe in all-energy policy,” Manchin said when asked about the climate provisions in the bill. “It’s not elimination, it’s innovation. They know where I’m coming from, and we have the facts to back that up.”
He added that he wanted to make sure “we’re using everything we have [and] we’re not eliminating anything.”