President Joe Biden has dropped $4 trillion in spending and tax increases in Democrats’ laps. They’re still not sure how the heck to make it into a law.
The White House is still technically negotiating with Republicans on their proposed $500 billion-plus infrastructure package, a counteroffer to the more than $2 trillion that Biden wants to spend. But Wednesday’s introduction of another $1.8 trillion measure that Biden has dubbed the American Families Plan puts increased pressure on Democrats to stiff-arm those talks.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said that if Republicans don’t budge from their $568 billion proposal within a week, he’d take it as “a very powerful signal” for Biden’s party to go solo. If they go that route, Democrats can use the protections of the budget to push through as much as they can along party lines.
“The train is leaving,” Blumenthal argued, adding that Democrats would “get a lot more than we would” by moving unilaterally than they would “if we chase our tail around and hope for this bipartisan mirage that is just over the horizon … and keeps moving over the horizon.”
The unmistakable movement toward a party-line approach is reminiscent of the opening weeks of Biden’s presidency, when Democrats spurned a GOP offer on coronavirus relief as too small and moved forward on their own to pass a $1.9 trillion bill. But hours before Biden prepares to promote his next big proposal in his first annual address to Congress, it’s clear that his party will have to work harder than it did in February before getting traction for a strategy that sidesteps Republicans.
The president’s latest package of policies is significantly more complicated than the Covid aid bill, there’s no hard deadline to pass it and some Senate Democrats are resisting another one-party bill.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), a close Biden ally, has little hope that Democrats will reach an agreement with Republicans on the “big, bold” agenda the party is touting. He predicted the likeliest path forward will be one large package, all done through so-called budget reconciliation to work around a Senate filibuster.
Democrats don’t have to “pass something just so we can say ‘Well, that piece over there was bipartisan,’ and wait for the pat on the back,” Casey said. “People want us to get big things done — and if that means we can do it in a bipartisan fashion, that’s great. I just don’t have confidence that that’s going to happen.”
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, are sending the same signal to Republicans that they did this winter: Get on board or get out of the way. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer delivered his strongest warning to Republicans yet on Wednesday ahead of Biden’s speech, indicating that his party would move forward with a budget resolution to set the stage for passing Biden’s plan with only Democratic votes if it comes to that.
Schumer said he wants to work with Republicans, but he’s determined to wipe away some of Trump’s tax cuts and approve new action to fight climate change. Those moves are highly unlikely to get GOP support — but if Democrats use the budget process, as they did with Biden’s Covid aid bill, that won’t matter. Democrats control 50 Senate seats, plus the vice president’s tie-breaking vote, and can move forward with total party unity provided they achieve that.
“No decisions have been made,” Schumer said. “We will look for bipartisanship wherever we can, but the No. 1 goal is the big, bold plan along the lines of what President Biden has proposed.”
Democratic leaders don’t plan to pivot immediately to a party-line approach, allowing more time for bipartisan infrastructure talks. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), her party’s lead negotiator with Biden’s White House on infrastructure, called his latest spending proposals “mind-boggling” but said the administration hasn’t yet pulled the plug on talking to her.
Of course, the two sides haven’t agreed on anything yet either: “They’re still in active conversations on the GOP plan and with us,” Capito said. “If in the end they circle back around and use the [budget] reconciliation vehicle, I can’t stop that.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a close ally of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, predicted if Democrats can move without Republicans, “they will.” If Democrats can’t keep their 50 senators unified, he added, “maybe they’ll come back and talk to Sen. Capito and those of us that are interested in doing a bipartisan bill.”
If and when Democrats begin drafting a bill to pass on their own, it would likely resemble a greatest-hits collection from both Biden’s infrastructure and new social spending plans — minus whatever components can’t win support from moderate Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
Biden’s family’s bill would plow $200 billion into universal pre-K, $225 billion into child care, $200 billion into Obamacare and $225 billion into family and medical leave, among other things. It follows his $2 trillion-plus physical infrastructure plan rolled out last month, which focuses on roads, bridges and broadband.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who is close to Biden, said the White House had sent Congress a “menu of proposals,” not a legislative edict.
“The administration didn’t send over a bill,” Coons said. “They sent over a policy agenda. Everyone says ‘you’re going to split the bill,’ and I’m like, what bill? There’s no bill.”
Schumer’s senators are working under another constraint: the arcane rules of budget reconciliation. That process makes the Senate parliamentarian the ultimate arbiter of which provisions can sidestep filibusters, a requirement that forced Democrats to nix a minimum wage hike earlier this year.
But, Blumenthal argued, “our chances are better with the parliamentarian than they are with the Republicans.”
With Democrats holding such narrow majorities in both the House and Senate, political concerns will largely determine how party leaders on the Hill translate Biden’s ideas into legislation. And although the party broadly likes Biden’s ideas, specific Democratic factions are prepared to make the details of any bill extremely hard to hammer out.
Progressives in the House are upset that Biden left out a plan to lower drug prices, for instance, while some centrist Democrats are anxious that hiking taxes on the wealthiest Americans would spark GOP attack ads against them back home. Some of those House moderates are so worried about the political risks that they may make a collective demand, according to people familiar with internal talks: a leadership guarantee that whatever makes it to the House floor can actually pass in the Senate.
Biden will begin pitching Congress on his social spending plan Wednesday night in a joint address that follows weeks of White House outreach to the Hill. Staff have been in close coordination with Democratic leaders and committees, as well as critical House rank-and-file members, while staff in both chambers were briefed Tuesday evening.
House committees scheduled their own meetings with internal party groups, such as the Congressional Progressive Caucus, to review requests for the bill as the drafting process begins.
And while most Democrats aren’t giving up a bipartisan process in public, they said that their party is closer to moving forward without the GOP. Senate Banking Chair Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said he assumed his party would have to use reconciliation and would finish its work by the end of the summer.
“I’m always trying with Republicans, but they’ve shown no real good faith on this,” Brown said. “What they want to do on infrastructure and families is just short of pathetic.”