Monday, October 18

Insider’s Capitol Hill reporter breaks down the Democrats’ infrastructure fight, the fate of Biden’s $3.5 trillion spending, and why the House had 2 Thursdays

  • Democrats in Congress are facing hurdles as they try to raise the debt limit and push forward Biden’s social spending package.
  • Senior editor Sarah Gray called up one of Insider’s Capitol Hill reporters, Joseph Zeballos-Roig, to get some clarity on where things stand.
  • Below is a lightly edited conversation to get you up to speed as we gear up for a new week.

Sarah Gray: It’s Friday, October 1, today, and this has been a crazy crazy week for you — and Congress.

Joseph Zeballos-Roig: It’s extremely hard to nail down where everybody is right now. So that’s been the challenge.

We started this week with worries that the government might shut down. And then there’s also the reconciliation bill and there’s the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the looming debt ceiling crisis. From Monday to Friday afternoon, how did we get here?

Congress had a very big to-do list, and Democrats, in particular, going into the week. The one thing they manage to clear from the to-do list was the short-term government funding bill. So that’s going to keep the government funding until December 3rd, but this is basically just punting to what’s going to be a big end-of-year spending battle.

In terms of infrastructure, I think that there is a little bit more clarity to what some moderates want, The infrastructure bill, a vote was yanked, but I think it also serves to start negotiations and talks on another, on the bigger part of Joe Biden’s domestic agenda, which is the reconciliation package. I think overall Democrats are slowly but surely making progress on what they want to do, but it’s definitely going to be playing out very messy and public for quite a while.

To the best of your knowledge, do you have a sense of where Democrats are right now with their priorities?

Yeah, so I think the easiest way to explain this is to go over the warring factions: moderates are insisting on a smaller bill, um, with fewer tax hikes. Progressives want a much larger bill to fund, you know, sweeping priorities like initiatives to fight climate change, and affordable childcare, and the expanded child tax credit, expanded Medicaid and Medicare. These are the priorities that a lot of Democrats favor, but they have a really wide bridge to gap between both sides.

Progressives aren’t holding the line on $3.5 trillion. They’re starting to signal that they could go lower, but they’re not going to go as low as Sen. Joe Manchin’s $1.5 trillion. It seems like we’re entering the new phase of negotiations, in which you’re going to try and hammer down a compromise amount. But it’s going to require a lot of Democrats to make some tough sacrifices on a lot of their priorities.

(Editor’s note: This conversation took place before a meeting between President Joe Biden and Democrats, where the president floated a $2 trillion spending package.)

It’s going to be a lot of horse-trading and the next couple of weeks and perhaps months, honestly when it comes to progressives you know, they’ve been very clear that they want this to be a big bill to fight climate change because a lot of the country has undergone climate emergencies or last couple of months — wildfires, deadly hurricanes. And when it comes to the human infrastructure aspect they’re going to have to make a lot of cuts to appease the centrists who just clearly just want a smaller bill at this point.

It felt like progressives were kind of holding the line Thursday night by delaying the vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. It is interesting to hear that they might be at a place where they’re ready to make some concessions.

I think a progressive are willing to making concessions, but moderates have not indicated as much willingness up to now. That’s been the problem that progressives complain about: on the Senate side, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have been pretty enigmatic about what they want in the bill. Manchin just laid out yesterday ahead of what was supposed to be a scheduled vote on the bipartisan infrastructure goal that he wants $1.5 trillion. But I think there’s still a lot of Democratic complaints, at least that I’ve heard on the Democratic side that Sinema has not been anywhere near as clear.

When do you think we will see any movement or any votes on this? It felt like things were really moving during the summer. And then we had this artificial deadline to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and now it’s possibly going to take months of negotiation, and next year is a midterm election year…

That’s definitely been a huge focus of Democrats. They want to wrap up the reconciliation bill as soon as possible so that they can provide tangible improvements in people’s lives. For example, Sanders is really pushing a Medicare expansion so that it would provide dental, vision , and hearing coverage for seniors. Some of those initiatives could take years to set up, but for example, he wants to provide these types of voucher cards that seniors could start using up to a thousand dollars so that they can start feeling these improvements in their lives ahead of midterms.

So that’s definitely been a focus, but a problem they’re already running into is a Manchin is insisting that be a long-drawn-out process. He’s repeatedly called for a strategic pause so that Democrats can get their economic priorities in order. Um , and you know, Manchin is a key vote in the 50-50 Senate, they can’t afford to lose anybody. A reconciliation bill for Biden’s domestic agenda is basically dead in the water until he decides that he can support it, which could very well be November, December.

So where are the Republicans in all of this?

It’s two parts when it comes to Republicans on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which was focused on popular voter stuff like improving roads and bridges enhancing or broadband connections. There was Republican support for this in the Senate: 19 Senate Republicans voted to back the bipartisan infrastructure bill, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But in the House, it’s a different story where Trump still has a lot of sway among House Republicans. On the larger reconciliation package, Republicans are united in opposition.

They have assailed it as a huge government expansion that will intrude on people’s lives; it will be financed with all these job-killing tax hikes. These are the arguments they are using to oppose the package.

A lot of these investments are popular with voters, childcare, community college, raising taxes on the rich. It’s not the same story among Republicans, so they’re just lining up in opposition, and quite frankly, trying to block many of these popular initiatives from becoming a law, because it would derail Democratic odds of holding onto Congress and furthering Biden’s domestic agenda.

The Republican talking point on the debt ceiling has been trying to connect the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill with why they won’t raise the debt ceiling, but the debt ceiling has to do with borrowing for bills that the government already owes. So it’d be a lot of the debt and a lot of the spending from the past administrations, including Trump’s right?

That’s correct. The debt ceiling needs to be raised this year regardless of spending plans. Republicans are insisting Democrats you’d do it alone and reconciliation it’s technically possible, but experts that I’ve talked to say it could take at least two weeks if everything goes right, probably three and we’re already in October 1st, so there’s very little time to do it and then there’s a very narrow margin of error for Democrats. Republicans are just not going for a debt limit hike, even though they approve it three times under the Trump administration and both parties accrued nearly $8 trillion in debt.

So raising the debt ceiling also doesn’t authorize new spending. And it needed to be done this year, regardless of Democratic spending plans.

Woody Harrelson was on the Hill this week. There was also the congressional baseball game, which felt totally out of place given all of the negotiations. Pelosi was down there on her cell phone…

Pelosi back in August faced a rebellion from a small group of House moderates, who demanded a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill before advancing the larger social spending plan. So she struck a deal with them for a late September vote. And, you know, Obviously, that hasn’t happened. The vote was pulled in the face of strong progressive resistance. So in a bid to try and keep her promise to these moderates, she essentially warped time last night.

The House didn’t gavel out, so basically it’s second Thursday in the House right now. The legislative calendar is still frozen on September 30. It underscores the procedural length of she’ll go in order to pacify the potent faction of her moderate wing . And I think it pretty much summarizes how wild this week was.

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