Sen. Bernie Sanders is traipsing through red states trying to sell the biggest tax increase in American history to GOP voters, knowing full well not one Republican senator will be supporting his plan to spend trillions on social welfare programs.
But these days Sanders is king, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and drafter of a massive bill that encompasses broad economic policy shifts on health care, taxes, climate and education. Basically the entire Democratic agenda, save for police and voting reforms, is being smushed into the $3.5 trillion behemoth that Sanders describes as “enormously popular.”
Yet Democrats representing battleground districts don’t agree — and they are the ones tasked with holding their seats to preserve the party’s imperiled House majority next year. What they think is enormously popular is the $579 billion bipartisan Senate infrastructure bill that passed with 19 Republican votes and comprises transportation projects that 70% of Americans support.
Progressives like Sanders insist that the existing bill can’t become law without the bigger, new bill that doesn’t exist yet. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Biden have backed them up, saying that the physical infrastructure projects must be paired and passed simultaneously with the “human” infrastructure bill. A standoff last week led to an agreement in which moderate Democrats were told that the former will receive a stand-alone vote in the House on Sept. 27 and that the latter will not be voted on by the lower chamber until it has been agreed to by the Senate. While that may not mean “passed by the full Senate,” the deal requires that any package be “pre-conferenced” with senators with the goal of reaching agreement before floor votes. Front-line Democrats from swing districts, who saw many of their colleagues defeated last year, don’t want to take a vote on the kitchen-sink bill that can be held against them in campaigns, only for it to go down in the Senate and never become law. Pelosi seemed to assure this when she said “we write a bill with the Senate because it’s no use our doing a bill that’s not going to pass the Senate.”
Democrats plan to combine both bills to pass under the “reconciliation” procedure they used to pass COVID relief, which protects budget bills from the Senate filibuster and allows a simple majority of 51 votes for passage with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the 50-50 tie. These same Democrats were vehemently opposed to Republicans using the reconciliation process to pass their $2 trillion tax cut that exploded the deficit in 2017. But while moderate Senate Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema say they will insist on lowering the price tag from $3.5 trillion, Sanders says the package he originally wanted to be more than $6 trillion is not big enough.
The self-described “Democratic socialist” from Vermont issued what sounded like a threat to Politico last week, stating the bottom line number is “non-negotiable”: “I already negotiated. The truth is we need more. The needs are there. This is, in my view, the minimum of what we should be spending.”
Sanders' plans are larger than what President Biden originally proposed. He includes coverage for hearing, vision and dental benefits in the expansion of Medicare. The bill will also expand the child tax credit, expand Medicaid in states that have thus far refused to accept expansion under Obamacare provisions, extend subsidies in the Affordable Care Act, provide for universal pre-K, tuition-free community college, and money for housing including rental assistance and house purchase down-payment assistance. The bill will fund clean energy and conservation and climate research, solar and other climate-friendly technologies, as well as electrifying federal buildings and the federal vehicle fleet.
While centrist democrats like Sen. Mark Warner have pledged the package would be “fully paid for,” offsets from savings or new taxes have yet to be finalized and could alter the actual cost of the final product. There are key disagreements over corporate tax rates that have yet to be resolved — Biden initially proposed going from 21% to 28%, but Manchin has said he would only support an increase to 25%. Many swing-district Democrats in high tax states are seeking to lift the cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions imposed by Republicans with their 2017 tax reform law.
Progressives, meanwhile, are aiming to broaden the bill’s reach with as many new programs or changes possible, even without the money to pay for them. That means instead of long-term or permanent funding for a few programs, they are funding far more programs by shortening funding windows with partial pay-fors. When such temporary funding runs out in a few years, fiscal cliffs will produce political showdowns and the threat that recipients will be cut off from benefits they may have assumed were permanent.
But progressives are pretty open that their strategy is to dupe people by jamming as much into the legislation in a deceptive way. Rep. Pramila Jayapal said, essentially, that Americans will eventually come to see the programs progressives want for them as necessary and therefore their short-term funding streams will be renewed down the road. “Once people are able to see and experience these benefits, they’ll be harder to roll back. They aren’t just the right thing to do but they’re incredibly popular,” the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus told Politico.
The already hefty price tag, therefore, isn’t real. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that the “arbitrary expirations and sunsets” Sanders and his fellow progressives are employing to hide the true costs likely bring the total to $5-5.5 trillion.
“The apparent plan to hide as much as $2 trillion through gimmicks, along with the willingness to pay for only a small fraction of all of the spending, jeopardizes not only the economy but our national security,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the CRFB. “While all of these ambitions are appealing, these lawmakers are afraid if people understood the real price tag, they wouldn’t support the spending.”
Pelosi has set an ambitious, if impossible, schedule of having all House committees finish their work on the reconciliation bill by Sept. 15 and to give what is supposed to be agreed to with the Senate final floor consideration by Oct. 1. This is, objectively, an unprecedented rush on a historically large set of new laws. And it is even more risky given concerns that existing programs are struggling to be implemented.
“What President Biden is attempting to do now could be seen as trying to launch 4 or 5 ACAs all at the same time, some with far less Congressional deliberation and time to prepare for implementation,” Simon Rosenberg, founder and president of the New Democrat Network, wrote recently. “States have not spent allocated American Rescue Plan rental relief funds, nor have they spent tens of billions of child care funds. Expanded unemployment insurance saw historic and unacceptable levels of fraud. The child care tax credit, as good as it is, is struggling to reach those most in need.”
This race to pass both kinds of “infrastructure” will be complicated by other intraparty battles, like funding the government and raising the debt ceiling — all at the same time.
Between the Afghanistan withdrawal and the surging delta variant, it was a wretched August for the Biden administration. September will be painful for the Democratic majorities in Congress. Going off a cliff with progressives, and risking the bipartisan infrastructure package to end up with neither, seems like an unforced error Democrats cannot afford to make.