Where Is the Democratic Agenda Headed?

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We are at the outset of what promises to be a frenzied and confusing fall on Capitol Hill, with a lot on the table and a lot of posturing over every part of it. No one can say with any confidence quite where things are headed; I certainly can’t. But here are five observations about what seems more and less likely and why, for what they are worth.

First, I think the Democrats are going to end up raising the debt ceiling on their own, in a stand-alone reconciliation bill they will push in parallel to their ongoing efforts to pass a massive social-spending reconciliation measure. They can do that alongside their ongoing work on the larger bill, though it will require revising the reconciliation instructions for the year. Section 304 of the 1974 law that created the current budget process allows for this, though it is no simple matter. Among other things, it would expose the Democrats to an extra round of votes on uncomfortable amendments (a so-called “vote-a-rama” in the Senate). And it will also take time. Back when I was a lowly House Budget Committee staffer, my boss used to say that complicated bicameral maneuvers like this would take “more than a week but less than a month.” That seems about right here. That means they do have time to do this, and claims to the contrary at this point are so much spin. But it also means they should start fairly soon.

The Democrats don’t want to do this, not only because they don’t want that extra round of votes but also because they believe it would require them to settle on an amount by which to raise the debt ceiling before they have come to any agreement among their party factions about how much to spend on the larger reconciliation and on what. (It is a widely held view in the Senate, though it isn’t rooted in any parliamentary precedent and hasn’t been tested, that a reconciliation bill has to increase the debt limit by a particular amount, rather than suspending it until a particular date.)

But unpleasant or not, the Democrats are likely going to have to do this on their own. The fact is that they have chosen to use an exceedingly narrow congressional majority to push through an exceedingly partisan agenda on their own, and that means they’re going to need to handle the debt ceiling on their own too. They have the means to do it, and they don’t have the means to force Republicans to cooperate. So it seems like we will ultimately see a bipartisan continuing resolution — which will extend current spending levels into December to avoid a government shutdown — without any increase in the debt ceiling, and then a debt-ceiling-only reconciliation bill that will get only Democratic votes.

Second, Senate passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill has badly undermined the Democrats’ capacity to pursue their more partisan progressive agenda. That doesn’t mean it will doom that agenda, of course, but it has harmed it. Separating actual infrastructure spending from the more ambitious progressive agenda has intensified the divisions between moderate and progressive Democrats, and has set their interests squarely against one another, rather than giving them a single legislative vehicle to champion for their separate purposes. On this front, as on the debt ceiling, Mitch McConnell’s tactical sense looks to have been sound.

But this was not some ingenious scheme by Republicans. It began for them as an effort to turn down the temperature on the filibuster, then after a while it seemed like it might actually have enough votes to pass, and at that point it became clear that it could also further divide the Democrats. Most of its Republican authors backed the bill for their own substantive reasons. Mitch McConnell jumped on board when the strategic advantage became apparent. And the Democratic moderates have supported the effort as a way to avoid getting stuck with a massive social-spending bill they couldn’t defend. Everyone has gotten what they hoped for except the more progressive Democrats, who have gotten what they feared — at least so far.

It’s hard to say whether passing the infrastructure bill in the House now would ultimately help or hurt the Democrats’ efforts to advance their reconciliation bill. The damage is done. Moderate Democrats aren’t invested in passage of the reconciliation bill either way, and both sides of the party are making all kinds of threats they won’t be able to keep. House Republicans deciding whether to vote for the infrastructure bill or not should just ask themselves what they think of it, substantively. Imagine that.

Third, the Democrats will pass a reconciliation bill with some progressive priorities in it, but it will be much smaller than what the progressives now want. Democrats in both houses are making this harder on themselves by staking out positions they will need to surrender in order to get half a loaf, so it’s easy to imagine the whole thing falling apart. But Democrats are still a little better than Republicans at taking half a loaf, and I think in the end they will pass something in a reconciliation bill and call it a win. They certainly run the risk of passing something big enough for Republicans to run against in purple districts but small enough for progressives to consider a betrayal and failure, and so ending up with the worst of both worlds. But they will probably still decide that’s better than getting nothing passed. I don’t think they’re going to completely fail to advance a meaningful legislative agenda, just that it will be more modest than what they now want.

Fourth, everyone’s assessment of Joe Biden has diminished. The White House has been strangely absent from the intra-party negotiations until quite recently, which was not at all the case on the infrastructure bill. But the bigger worry for Democrats is the sense that Biden doesn’t have the juice to speak for them if things get rough. If you’re going to come close to a government shutdown, let alone hitting the debt ceiling, you need the president to think on his feet, make a strong case to the public, and stand up for your position against the other party. It seems increasingly evident that President Biden won’t be up to that. His performance as a spokesman for his administration’s policies on the COVID response and the Afghanistan withdrawal have been abysmal, his public statements reek of sad exhaustion, and his staff seems afraid to put him out in public. This can’t help but influence the Democrats’ sense of what sorts of risks they want to take this fall.

And finally, fifth, what’s going on at this point is that the Democrats are being forced to confront the reality of their extremely narrow congressional majority. There has pretty much never been a narrower one. They have about three votes to spare in the House. They don’t have a Senate majority at all, and have to count on the vice president’s vote to get party-line measures through. The president’s public approval is around the 50 percent mark on a great day for him, and a bit lower most of the time now. Of course they’re not just going to pass the second Great Society in this situation. They’re going to pass narrow, modest measures, and they’re going to have to work with some Republicans to get most of them through. The infrastructure bill is an example of the kind of legislative measure that a period like this might be expected to produce under the best of circumstances. The reconciliation bill is not. It is an example of self-delusion.

That self-delusion has been evident from the outset of the Biden administration, in all kinds of talk about how a new progressive era had been inaugurated, and how the COVID-response bill was the most dramatic leftward step our society had seen in generations. Remember when the relief checks were going to change our politics? That talk has abated some, but the underlying attitude is powerfully evident in the very idea of the reconciliation bill the Democrats are now advancing.

Self-delusion can get you pretty far sometimes, especially when it becomes contagious. Consider the Trump era. But the Democrats shouldn’t be surprised, or go searching for villains, when a delusional strategy fails to bend reality. They may well make their way to total triumph here, but that would be surprising. Failure, or a modest success that feels like failure, would be less surprising. And no one should be shocked that giving this a try has them tying themselves in knots, backing themselves into corners, and pushing their coalition to the brink of breakdown. Given the results of the last election, what they’re trying to do here is pretty odd, and claiming to do it in the name of democracy is all the more so.

In the end, though, I’d repeat a point I’ve made around here over the years: In a big legislative push, success and failure often feel exactly the same while they are happening. They feel like a chaotic series of near-death experiences. The fact that the Democrats’ legislative strategy now has that feel to it doesn’t mean it won’t work. And of course the fact that it deserves to fail doesn’t mean it will. All we know at this point is that it is in real trouble.