The House and Senate are both in recess this week, neither planning floor sessions. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re not working on the critical half of President Joe Biden’s big economic, climate change, and family agenda he’s calling Build Back Better (BBB). It’s the companion bill to the hard infrastructure bill that both the House and Senate have passed. Now that House Democrats have decided to trust Biden’s ability to bring recalcitrant Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema along and do it in the next three weeks, with the Thanksgiving holiday thrown in, the pressure is very much on. Because it’s not just BBB that has to be dealt with by Dec. 3.
The conservative House Democrats who have been fighting that larger budget reconciliation bill agreed that they would allow for a vote on the package “no later than the week of Nov. 15.” So that’s the immediate job. There won’t be any time to rest if that achievement is met because Congress agreed to give themselves that Dec. 3 deadline for two rather important things: lifting or suspending the debt ceiling, and providing government funding for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2022 (we’re already almost a month and a half into it).
Republicans are going to help with neither task. Which means it would make a lot of sense for Democrats to get one of those big must-pass things done as quickly as possible—they need to put the debt ceiling suspension in the budget reconciliation BBB bill, which will pass with only Democratic votes.
There’s a lot of good reasons to do that. Joe Manchin is one big one. He backed the idea as recently as a few weeks ago, saying, “Democrats have the responsibility, being the majority party right now, to do it through reconciliation” if Republicans refuse to help. Republicans will refuse to help.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already promised that, and he can’t back down. He’s already been blasted by other Senate Republicans who said he caved on extending the deadline in early October. For his reward, the former guy is renewing his attacks on McConnell. Republicans aren’t going to help.
It would be a sweetener for Manchin—as much of an obstructionist asshole as he is, he’s not willing to play with that particular fire, the full faith and credit of the United States. But he is going to be more than willing to delay and delay and delay the BBB budget reconciliation bill. It’s been a constant game of whack-a-mole for Democrats with him, as he takes turns with Sinema to pose objections that Democrats have to address—because this thing doesn’t pass without them.
If it’s the only game in town for lifting the debt ceiling, or better yet forever eliminating it as a weapon for McConnell, then Democrats had better do that.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has blessed the strategy. On the way to the Glasgow climate summit last week, Yellen told reporters that Democrats should be willing to do it. “Should it be done on a bipartisan basis? Absolutely. Now, if they’re not going to cooperate, I don’t want to play chicken and end up not raising the debt ceiling. I think that’s the worst possible outcome,” Yellen told The Washington Post. “If Democrats have to do it by themselves, that’s better than defaulting on the debt to teach the Republicans a lesson.”
The Senate Budget Committee has ruled out that approach previously, but they could and should change their minds, and they should do it using the process Greg Sargent at the Post discussed with Georgetown law professor David Super. The reluctance of Democrats to deal with the debt limit in reconciliation has been because this form of bill requires specific amounts of either spending or revenue increases, and they don’t want to saddle themselves with having passed a $3 or $4 or whatever trillion increase. But, Super has argued, they don’t actually have to specify a number: “You can probably change the number to something you don’t spell out in ink, but that you describe,” Super explained. “You tie it to the national debt. That is a number. It’s just not a number you wrote out.” The number is the national debt, and the debt ceiling is set is tied to that number. Period. No more need for Congress to ever get involved.
Resolve those two things by Thanksgiving (a tall order, but not impossible). Then Congress can focus all of its attention on government funding, which is also mired down right now by Republicans refusing to help appropriators in the Senate set spending levels. They want to skip the budgeting and appropriations process completely and just have another full-year continuing resolution—the kind of stop-gap funding measure that continues funding for everything at current levels until a date specified in the resolution. The current one runs until Dec. 3.
“An endless cycle of continuing resolutions is not a responsible way to govern,” Appropriations Chairman Patric Leahy said in response to the proposal. “It means cuts to veterans, cuts to national security and defense, handcuffing our response to the pandemic, and not meeting the challenges of climate change. We have made clear what we are for. What are they for? We are ready to get to work as soon as they come to the table.”
They will not come to the table, and they don’t have to. There are 50 of them, just like there are 50 Democrats, and they have Manchin and Sinema willing to continue giving Republicans veto power over the Democrats’ agenda. As long as the two of them insist the filibuster remains, McConnell has minority rule, with the exception of budget reconciliation. So Democrats need to use it, and they need to make Manchin help. That would make the next two months just slightly less hellish.