“If we were in Europe, we’d be 30 different political parties,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) told me, with just a touch of exaggeration. But McGovern, who chairs the Rules Committee, believes his colleagues understand the bottom-line truth: “If we can’t deliver on this, God help us in the next election.”
Still, the ugly process and the relentless focus on the bill’s current $3.5 trillion price tag are taking a toll and feeding other misunderstandings. Only rarely is it pointed out that this is spent out over 10 years and thus amounts to just 1.2 percent of the economy. Worse, the focus on a single abstract total means little attention to what the Build Back Better initiatives would actually do — for children, families, education, health care, housing and climate.
“When Democrats allow a debate to be only about a number,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), a leading moderate, said in an interview, “it’s like talking about a Christmas party and only discussing the hangover.”
Substantively, added Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), starting the discussion this way gets things exactly backward. “We should work from what policies we want to enact,” he said, “rather than an arbitrary number.”
Yes, as Van Hollen recognizes, Democrats will eventually have to agree on an overall spending level to work out what fits. Still, the question of what would constitute an acceptable outcome cannot be divorced from deciding which projects would have to be scaled back under a lower figure — or thrown over the side altogether.
Thus, Biden has been pressing Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and other more conservative Democrats to be specific about what they do and don’t want in a final package.
At his news conference on Friday, Biden said this was a central theme in his meetings with congressional Democrats this past week. “Forget a number,” Biden told them. “What do you think we should be doing?” He added that when some of his interlocutors listed all their priorities, they discovered that “it adds up to a number higher than they said they were for.”
And no, the entire cost will not just be thrown onto the national debt. A frustrated Biden pointed out that if all the revenue increases he has proposed were enacted, “it is zero price tag on the debt.”
Here’s one more misconception: the idea that all middle-of-the-road Democrats are of the same mind. In fact, most House Democrats, including many moderates, agree with the original goal of passing the Senate’s bipartisan physical infrastructure bill in tandem with the larger Build Back Better bill.
There will be much teeth-gnashing over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pledge of a vote on the Senate bill by Monday. It’s an artificial deadline and it will be extremely hard to meet, as Pelosi suggested Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
She noted she would never bring a bill to the floor “that doesn’t have the votes.” She knows it’s foolish to imagine that more progressive House Democrats will give up their only leverage, which is to hold back their support for the smaller bill until they know Senate Democrats are fully on board with the broader one.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, noted in an interview that the bigger bill still under negotiation includes “the majority of the president’s agenda and what we ran on in 2020.”
“We were promised the two would move together, and we’re just enforcing the agreement we made,” Jayapal said. Which happens to be true. House Democrats eager for a quick vote on the bipartisan bill hinted this weekend that they were willing to show short-term patience in the interest of longer-term success. Biden should be ready to encourage them down this path.
In my ideal world, we would spend more than $3.5 trillion, given how much needs to be done to give low- and middle-income Americans what Biden called “a little breathing room.”
But in the world as it exists, compromise is likely to require something smaller. That’s okay. What would not be okay: for Democrats to walk away from the best opportunity they have had in at least two generations to repair and reconstruct our nation’s social contract. Despite all their grousing, I think they know that.