The House returns from its August recess on Monday to kick off what may become a historic legislative push that could reshape the safety net and combat climate change — or turn into a massive Democratic failure that would harm the nation and amount to an epic political self-own.
Lawmakers are supposed to vote on a budget resolution that would clear the way for the Democrats to advance a big “reconciliation” bill, which would enable them to pass a range of taxing and spending policy through the Senate with only Democratic votes. But nine centrist House Democrats, enough to deny a House majority, insist that they will not vote for the budget resolution until the House passes a different bill, the $1 trillion infrastructure package the Senate approved earlier this month.
Democratic leaders had linked the two: The infrastructure bill would pass only when the larger reconciliation package, which will take weeks or months to write, was ready for a vote. This way, the centrists, who want the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, would have a stake in the passage of the reconciliation package, which Democratic liberals and progressives want. As long as both are still on the table, each side has something big to lose if they fail to advance. The centrists are trying to break this linkage, and in so doing give themselves all the leverage in the upcoming reconciliation bill negotiations.
Their gambit is unlikely to work; far more than nine House progressives have pledged to reject the $1 trillion infrastructure plan until the reconciliation bill is ready. If the centrists got their immediate vote on the infrastructure bill, it would likely fail. That would be a disaster for the nation, which needs both investment in roads and rails and assurance that the political system can still sometimes work. Centrists’ energy would be far better spent negotiating the reconciliation package than on insisting that progressives unilaterally disarm.
There is much to negotiate. The reconciliation bill’s advertised $3.5 trillion price tag is really more like $5 trillion to $5.5 trillion once one strips away the gimmicks, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Combined with the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, the whole program could add $4.3 trillion in new debt over the next decade. Centrists should force a debate on the cost, streamlining new proposed programs, insisting on more substantial pay-fors, or both.
This should lead to a debate about priorities. The reconciliation bill promises to slash drastically child poverty through an enhanced child tax credit, cut the ranks of the working poor with a boosted earned-income tax credit, enshrine in law an ambitious federal climate policy and promote many other worthy reforms. But is pumping up Medicare, including for many wealthy seniors, more important than shoring up Obamacare or ensuring that low-income people caught in Medicaid’s coverage gap have basic health-care access? Does the nation need free community college when it can instead enhance Pell Grants for the neediest? The reconciliation bill’s answer to these questions is: Do it all. And to pay for it, the reconciliation bill’s architects suggest some significant new revenue sources, such as higher corporate taxes, and some squishy pay-fors, such as projected economic growth.
Democratic infighting must not ruin what is a rare opportunity in Washington, a moment when substantial reform is possible. Instead of issuing ultimatums, the party that narrowly controls the House should get to work.