The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How did the Democrats’ major spending bill get off life support?

These factors made the difference

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) heads to the Senate chamber for a vote on Aug. 3. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Early Sunday, in one of the biggest political surprises of the year, the Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which would cut carbon emissions, reduce the deficit and cap prescription drug costs. Because Republicans unanimously opposed the bill, the IRA needed all 50 Senate Democrats’ votes to pass. When one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), announced in July that he could not support the measure, it seemed all but dead.

But secret negotiations between Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) — and follow-up conversations between Schumer and another undecided senator, Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — resurrected the bill. Those negotiations could easily have failed. But they shared key features that history tells us help to engineer legislative bargaining.

Negotiators can’t be stuck in the mud

With a team of research assistants and the support of American University’s Program on Legislative Negotiation, I reviewed congressional histories and media accounts between 1981 and the present to find over 140 instances of negotiation in Congress. Negotiators’ willingness to revise a measure’s text is the most common factor propelling a bill to the next stages of the legislative process.

This may seem obvious. But as political scientists Sarah Binder and Frances Lee have noted, in an era of ideologically polarized parties, lawmakers who want to stay in the good graces of their core supporters and avoid primary challengers have an incentive to reject compromise. As a result, such willingness can be hard to come by. Indeed, when the players’ policy differences are too great to overcome, congressional negotiations typically fail.

Although Manchin is by far the most conservative member of the Democratic Caucus, he never abandoned the idea of getting to yes on the bill. He just wanted certain changes — and a pledge that Democrats would put another, pro-pipeline measure on the Senate agenda. Sinema, who like Manchin often votes with Republicans, was also open to compromise. And Democratic leaders proved willing to give up or change much of what was in the original legislation to lock down their votes, even giving it a more politically attractive name “Inflation Reduction Act.”

Why is Manchin such a thorn in the Democratic party's side? Let us count the reasons.

Congressional leaders are in the room where it happens

Party leaders in Congress are responsible for getting legislation passed. They usually have both the persuasive abilities and resources at their disposal — like campaign funds and control over what other measures come to the floor — to move negotiations forward. In the past, congressional leaders have helped negotiate differences among lawmakers that led to such major enactments as the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act and the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Schumer was central to the final negotiations over the IRA. Not long after Manchin walked away from the bill in mid-July, he reached out to Schumer, who quickly took the opportunity to restart discussions with Manchin over the measure. Schumer was also the main negotiator with Sinema and is credited with quickly getting her to an agreement.

Presidents often stay out of negotiations

In a newly published book chapter, David Barker and I explain that presidents have often been very useful in legislative bargaining. But we also note that, in most cases, presidents stay clear of internal congressional negotiations. This can sometimes help the bargaining process, especially if the president is unpopular or perceived by lawmakers as too partisan.

The current political context didn’t favor pulling President Biden into negotiations on this bill. His approval ratings have been near rock-bottom for a first-term president. His relationship with Manchin has not been good, either. So it was essential that the White House not be part of conversations with Manchin on the measure. Perhaps not coincidentally, the White House has kept itself away from other recent — and successful — legislative negotiations on Capitol Hill about such issues as gun violence and high-tech manufacturing.

The Democrats passed their big spending bill through reconciliation. What's 'reconciliation'?

Closing the doors, meeting deadlines

When bargaining is done in private, lawmakers can negotiate with each other without fearing blowback from lobbyists, organized interests or voters. Manchin and other Senate Democrats did a remarkable job keeping the lid on their discussions until their agreement was finalized.

Impending deadlines can also encourage negotiators to resolve differences. In this case, negotiators were staring at both the upcoming end of the fiscal year in September — after which Republicans could have forced the bill to get 60 votes to pass — and at the upcoming November elections, when Democrats could lose control of one or both chambers.

Senate passage of the IRA was not inevitable. Leaders could not count on securing either Manchin’s or Sinema’s votes. The bill contained a number of politically difficult provisions, particularly those about climate change. Both Manchin and Sinema have been willing to block other Democratic initiatives. But in this case, negotiations between Senate leaders and the two holdouts had several of the ingredients that make bargaining in Congress more likely to succeed.

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Matthew N. Green (@mattngreen), professor of politics and department chair at Catholic University, is the co-author with Jeff Crouch of “Newt Gingrich: The Rise and Fall of a Party Entrepreneur” (University Press of Kansas, 2022).

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