Congress is a flaming mess this week, and it’s not even only because of Republicans. Senate Republicans are the ones pushing the United States toward first a government shutdown, coming Friday if nothing changes, and a debt default, coming Oct. 18. But conservative Democrats are also causing serious problems in a longer-term way, with President Joe Biden’s agenda on the line. They’re basking in the attention of the squeaky wheel and taking one endless White House meeting after another while refusing to say what exactly they want or would accept in a Build Back Better bill to be passed using reconciliation, which only requires a simple majority in the Senate.
“I don't” know what conservative Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema want, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said.
”I and others are waiting for Kyrsten and Joe to tell us what is it that they like or don't like, and then we can get it done, because other people have been waiting for all these programmatic areas of support for a long time,” Sen. Mazie Hirono told reporters.
An unnamed Democratic senator told CNN that Manchin and Sinema are “a total moving target” with “a total lack of clarity.”
It’s not that Manchin and Sinema have a set of consistent, stated requirements that Democrats can work with, in other words. They’re reveling in the attention while refusing to do their jobs by negotiating in good faith—especially Sinema, who really hasn’t made her priorities known.
While Manchin and Sinema manipulate and delay the process of getting to a bill that’s intended to include priorities like child care, universal pre-K, free community college, efforts to fight climate change, and elder care, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is decoupling that effort from passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill. But even though the infrastructure bill got 19 votes in the Senate, including that of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Republican leaders are whipping against it, leaving its fate in serious question because progressive Democrats are also opposing it until it is again linked to the reconciliation bill—a move that’s important to progressives to increase pressure for the larger bill to pass.
Pelosi is an expert vote-counter, and she says she’s bringing the infrastructure bill for a vote on Thursday, but she’s working against House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, who says he’s “working to keep that number [of Republicans voting yes] as low as we possibly can.” Again, 19 Senate Republicans voted yes on this.
In contrast, zero Senate Republicans voted yes Monday on a bill to keep the government open past Thursday and prevent the U.S. from defaulting on its debts and sending the country into a recession. On Tuesday they blocked Democrats from passing the bill with no Republican votes.
McConnell, who has said that he wants the debt limit suspended, explained why Republicans are refusing to even allow Democrats to pass that measure with a simple majority vote. “There is no chance the Republican conference will go out of our way to help Democrats conserve their time and energy so they can resume ramming through partisan socialism as fast as possible,” he said. In other words, Republicans are holding the nation’s ability to pay its obligations hostage in order to make it more difficult for Democrats to get anything else done. McConnell is being entirely clear about that.
Pelosi has told House Democrats that in response to McConnell’s hostage-taking, she’ll decouple the debt ceiling from the continuing resolution to keep the government funded and open for a couple more months. But while that capitulation could keep the government open past Thursday—if McConnell doesn’t decide to also oppose that, just for the fun of it—Congress would still need to get the debt limit dealt with, and even if House Democrats pass a stand-alone bill to address that on Wednesday or Thursday, there’s no indication Senate Republicans will move on it as long as there’s anything else they’re interested in stopping.
Got all that? Let’s recap:
Government shutdown: It could be averted if the House and Senate pass a stand-alone measure extending federal funding into December. But that’s a capitulation by Democrats, and there’s no solid guarantee Senate Republicans will go along.
Debt limit: The House may vote on a stand-alone measure, but Senate Republicans will continue to block anything other than Democrats using reconciliation to deal with it. That complicates reconciliation negotiations and forces Democrats to raise rather than suspend the debt ceiling, though it might also open the door to a creative long-term fix.
Bipartisan infrastructure bill: The House will vote Thursday, with progressive Democrats opposed because it has been decoupled from the larger package containing more of their priorities, and Republican leaders whipping against it. Whatever you’re rooting to see happen, this one is likely to be a nail-biter.
Build Back Better: It’s waiting for Manchin and Sinema to decide they’ve gotten enough attention from the media and President Biden and say what they actually want so meaningful negotiation can happen.