President Joe Biden and the Democrats – most of them, anyway – were dreaming of a green Christmas, but will those dreams be dashed? They had hoped to pass their massive social spending package by the holiday break, but that’s looking less likely as the days go by. Between the debt ceiling, defense spending, and funding even the basic operations of the federal government – not to mention the new Senate vote to kill the president’s vaccine mandate – the Build Back Better Act seems to be the last in a long line of time-sensitive priorities. So can Biden and friends clear this legislative logjam and Build Back Better by Christmas? Probably not.
Kicking the Can
Democrats talked a good game around Thanksgiving about having the BBBA done by Christmas, but it doesn’t seem they were thinking of the latest stopgap funding bill or the debt ceiling suspension, both of which would be up soon. Congress spent the first week of December working not on Biden’s agenda but simply addressing the very mundane aspects of federal funding. Another Continuing Resolution was passed before the Dec. 3 deadline – this time pushing the issue out to Feb. 18 – but the time spent kicking that has once more set them back on other priorities.
The National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, however, wasn’t so lucky. That has been held up in the Senate over provisions dealing with Russia and China. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Monday, Dec. 6, that lawmakers were close to reaching an agreement, but that’s time already burned arguing, with no guarantee that a conclusion is nigh. Schumer’s estimate? Sometime this week. We shall see.
Also on the spending docket is the debt ceiling. It is believed that the current limit will be hit on Dec. 15 and that the nation could begin to default on its debts a mere week later. Any attempt in the Senate to raise or suspend that limit will face opposition. As usual, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) says he won’t support it. There are, however, far more damning facts for any debt ceiling hike this go around. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that he wouldn’t help the Democrats this time. Also, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has expressed his concern over inflation and called for a “strategic pause” on increasing the deficit to see if recent spending measures will make inflation better or worse. Whether the limit is raised or not, that’s still more time that must be spent before Democrats can hope to Build Back Better through reconciliation.
A Snowball’s Chance?
At some point this week, the Senate is expected to vote on a resolution to nullify the president’s vaccine mandate for private companies. This comes after an amendment for the most recent CR to do the same failed, gaining zero Democrat support. This bill, however, might well have at least one non-GOP senator on board. After voting against the CR amendment, Manchin declared that he was against the idea of a government vaccine mandate on private companies.
As a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act, a simple majority in both chambers can cancel the president’s executive order they feel is an abuse of power – that is, so long as the president doesn’t veto their resolution. All 50 Republicans in the Senate have backed the measure, and there’s some speculation that Manchin – as well as perhaps Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Jon Tester (D-MT) – could be persuaded to sign on. Of course, any result at or beyond that 51-vote requirement is passing.
That said, there’s almost certainly no way a majority could be had in the House – and even if there were, it seems unlikely Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) would allow a vote. Then there’s that veto. Why wouldn’t Biden veto any resolution to nullify one of his executive actions? Still, this all takes time, and the Senate can’t pass one bill while arguing over another.
Build Back Better Battle Gets SALTy
Even among Democrats, not everyone is happy with the spending package. There’s a proposal in the budget already passed by the House to raise the SALT cap from $10,000 to $80,000. Several Senate Democrats aren’t happy about giving a tax break to millionaires. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) even suggested making the deduction apply only to people who earn $400,000 or less a year, but that wouldn’t be very popular with lawmakers representing areas with a high cost of living, like New York’s Schumer. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) suggested an income threshold of $1 million, but others in the party think that’s too high.
On top of the SALT deduction issue, Manchin still has problems with the climate measures. He may demand the overall price tag be dropped once the CBO finally releases its deeper dive into the ten-year cost of the bill, which could be as high as $4 trillion if all the proposals within are extended. Finally, Senate Democrats will have to get the bill straight with the parliamentarian’s interpretations of the rules to pass this by reconciliation.
All these delays push back the bill, of course, but there’s more to it than simply time spent bickering. The cost of fighting both between the parties and within the Democratic Party may prove too high. The funding CR cleared the House essentially along party lines – that is, 220 Democrats and a single Republican (Adam Kinzinger of Illinois) voted to pass the bill while 212 Republicans pushed against it. Build Back Better has already made it through the House, but ramrodding legislation through with little to no minority support doesn’t exactly inspire bipartisanship in either chamber moving forward.
That said, the Senate did pass the stopgap funding with more teamwork than the House – but only after the Democrats purchased some GOP support by agreeing to vote on whether to block Biden’s vaccine mandate. All that bickering – including the dust-up over SALT just within the Democratic Party – could prove an even worse hindrance. Not only would any change in the Senate force another vote in the House, but the more members of Congress fight among themselves, the more likely they are to keep fighting rather than compromise and work together. Will Biden get the stocking stuffer he wants? Right now, the answer seems to be – despite Schumer’s optimism – probably not.
~ Read more from James Fite.