With New Deadline, Can Democrats Get Biden's Agenda Done?

With New Deadline, Can Democrats Get Biden's Agenda Done?


Democrats may have failed to come together last week to pass the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, but the drama surrounding the postponed vote accomplished two things.

First, it made clear that the infrastructure legislation and a multitrillion-dollar package to expand the social safety net and combat climate change are linked, despite the wishes of some centrists in the party.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told CNN on Sunday that her members, by blocking a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, have helped push President Biden’s core agenda back on to the table, reestablishing the linkage between both pieces of legislation. “We’ve put the bills back together, as was the original agreement, and we are going to deliver both bills — the infrastructure bill, which is important, and the Build Back Better Act,” she said.

Second, it made plain that the $3.5 trillion topline sought by progressive for that larger package will wind up being reduced significantly.

The new deadline for both bills is October 31. President Biden on Saturday signed into law a 30-day stopgap extension for transportation programs that had seen their funding lapse when the fiscal year ended on Thursday. The short-term authorization, passed by the House on Friday and the Senate on Saturday, allows 3,700 Department of Transportation employees to return to work after being briefly furloughed. And it sets up a Halloween deadline for the bipartisan infrastructure bill and Biden’s Build Back Better Act focused on social programs.

"It is crucial that the House, Senate and President come to a final agreement on the details of the Build Back Better Act as soon as possible, preferably within a matter of days, not weeks," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote in a Monday letter to Senate Democrats. He added: "Not every member will get everything he or she wanted. But at the end of the day, we will pass legislation that will dramatically improve the lives of the American people. I believe we are going to do just that in the month of October.”

To do it, Democrats will have to quell some anger, overcome some major differences — and make nearly $2 trillion in cuts to the budget bill.

The anger was evident in statements by centrists. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) called the delayed House vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package she helped negotiate “inexcusable, and deeply disappointing for communities around our country.” She also warned that the move further erodes the trust necessary in negotiations. And Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) fumed that a “small faction on the far left” was employing what he called “Freedom Caucus tactics” to put Biden’s agenda at risk. “We were elected to achieve reasonable, commonsense solutions for the American people — not to obstruct from the far wings,” he said.

As for the size and substance of the budget package, the White House has set a topline target range of $1.9 trillion to $2.3 trillion, slightly above the $1.5 trillion demanded by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a key vote in the Senate. Getting there will require some difficult choices, as Politico notes: “They can toss overboard entire policies. They can make some programs less expensive through means-testing (Manchin’s preference). They can create programs with shorter lifespans and hope that they get renewed. They can engage in myriad types of budgetary gimmickry.”

We’ll venture a not-so-bold prediction: some budgetary gimmickry will be involved.

Jayapal on Sunday insisted that Manchin’s $1.5 trillion ceiling is too low. “That’s not going to happen,” she told CNN CNN. “That’s too small to get our priorities in. It's going to be somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5, and I think the White House is working on that right now because, remember, what we want to deliver is child care, paid leave and climate change, housing.”

Jayapal said that the focus of Democrats’ debate should be on the substance of the legislation rather than the price tag. "What we've said from the beginning is that it's never been about the price tag. It's about what we want to deliver," she said. "The critical thing is let's get our priorities in and then we will figure out what it actually costs."

She added that Biden had also asked Democrats to start with the policies they support rather than thinking about the topline number. And she suggested that negotiators could trim the price tag of $3.5 trillion over 10 years by cutting some smaller items from the legislation and then funding some larger priorities for a shorter period of time.

Jayapal also pushed back on a number of Manchin’s specific demands. She flatly rejected his insistence that reconciliation package must include what’s known as the Hyde Amendment, which restricts Medicaid payments for abortion. And she questioned his call for means testing to limit benefit programs to lower-income earners. “I have been consistent in my belief that any expansion of social programs must be targeted to those in need, not expanded beyond what is fiscally possible,” Manchin said. But Jayapal argued that means testing will be counterproductive. “All of the research shows means-testing actually doesn’t target it more but it does create a lot of administrative burden and a lot more cost,” she told CNN.

The bottom line: “Massive legislation is rarely passed in Washington without near disasters,” CNN’s Stephen Collinson writes. “The prospect of failure is often the only thing that prods warring factions toward compromise.” One failure may not be disastrous, but Democrats probably can’t afford another.