As Samuel Johnson once said, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” So it is with the Democrats’ big spending proposals. For much of the summer, there has been wrangling without final decision. That time for posturing is over.
Nearly 20 Senate Republicans have foolishly signed on to a bipartisan bill with $550 billion in new infrastructure spending. By contrast, Democrats must go it alone to pass the American Families Plan, their $3.5 trillion package of welfare spending and all sorts of other goodies. Dems are trying to cram the plan through the budget reconciliation process as the House reconvenes Monday morning.
The $3.5 trillion plan still faces some hurdles in clearing Senate rules, under which budget bills are only supposed to contain spending, taxes and other things related to them — not new laws. Sen. Mitch McConnell is also pledging a vote against raising the federal debt ceiling if Democrats forge ahead with the $3.5 trillion in spending on their own. But the minority leader can’t actually stop the Democrats if they are united.
The biggest political fight is now within the House Democratic caucus. With only a 220-212 majority in the House, Nancy Pelosi can’t pass anything if five or more Democrats vote no. But she faces conflicting demands from opposite ends of her caucus.
On her left flank, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and The Squad are leading what some Hill sources claim are “dozens upon dozens” of progressive Democrats who say they will vote down the bipartisan infrastructure package if it comes up without the American Families Plan. They want the two linked to ensure that the bigger package passes.
In the center, nine House Democratic moderates have pledged to oppose the $3.5 trillion plan unless the infrastructure bill passes first and is signed by the president. That would give them leverage to negotiate down the size of the bigger package. Two moderate Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, also say that they won’t vote for the reconciliation package unless the infrastructure plan passes — and Democrats can’t pass anything in the Senate unless they are unanimous.
Then there are the Republicans, some of whom are essentially gambling that they can vindicate their votes for the smaller bill only if the bigger one fails. That bet will look like a very bad one if the Democrats are able to use GOP support as cover to spend $3.5 trillion.
Pelosi has sided with AOC, saying that she will link the two packages and push them forward on parallel tracks. That sets up a game of chicken as she calls the moderates’ bluff. She has sounded uncompromising notes: “This is no time for amateur hour. . . . For the first time, America’s children have leverage — I will not surrender that leverage.”
Pelosi likely has the stronger hand here. The party’s moderates don’t have much track record of standing their ground. Pelosi, who passed ObamaCare through the House in 2009, knows how to deliver her caucus. But her caucus is smaller now, and her margin of error is narrower. And the moderate Democrats of 2021 recall that the moderate Democrats who backed ObamaCare mostly lost their jobs as a result.
The collapse of Afghanistan introduces a wild card. President Biden’s honeymoon is over. His approval ratings are plunging. National poll averages showing him dropping 10 points in a month, and that may be understating how ugly things are getting on the ground in swing districts.
On the one hand, parties in power tend to have more defectors from their legislative agenda when their president loses popularity. That dynamic intensifies when there is a midterm election coming and voters can only vent their frustration on Congress. Moderates in contested districts may suddenly feel more pressure to show their independence from the White House
But foreign-policy failure could also drive Democrats together. A party that just suffered such a major setback abroad can’t afford a self-inflicted defeat on domestic policy, too. Fear of going home to the voters empty-handed could well bring both moderates and progressives to the table to find some way to ensure that something passes for everyone.
Their date with the voters may concentrate their minds wonderfully.
Dan McLaughlin is a senior writer at National Review.
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