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Littwin: Do Pelosi and Biden have a plan to save the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill? They’d better.

Pelosi says the House will vote on the $1.1 trillion infrastructure bill on Thursday. She needs progressives to pass it, and that’s where things get complicated.

It has been my lifelong ambition not to be the grownup in the room. Blame it on the ’60s. Blame it on my mother. Whatever.

So, it is easy for me to say that House progressives should stick to their principles and not vote for the bipartisan (still shocking to use that rarely employed word) Senate infrastructure bill, the one that Nancy Pelosi insists she will put to a vote on Thursday after postponing a scheduled Monday vote.

Progressives say they need, at minimum, some kind of guarantee from Pelosi, from Joe Biden, from Chuck Schumer, that they are not throwing away all their leverage by, well, caving. 

Mike Littwin

Progressives have said all along — with Biden’s blessing, more or less — that unless a singularly partisan $3.5 trillion human-infrastructure bill passes the Senate through a 50-50 reconciliation vote, they won’t vote to pass the original infrastructure bill. The two bills have been linked from the beginning — the fact that there are two bills is a compromise — and now Pelosi, the master legislator, almost always the grownup in the room, says they must be de-linked in the near term to avoid catastrophe.

Cue the Dems-in-disarray jokes, but the truth is, it’s not all that funny. Ask Michael Bennet, whose very progressive child-credit-expansion bill that reduces child poverty by nearly 50% — set to sunset next year — is a major piece of the human-infrastructure bill. Other pieces — nearly all of them popular, according to the polls — include provisions on child care, home care, universal pre-K, climate change, paid leave, health care and more.

It doesn’t really cost $3.5 trillion today — you may not know that the cost will be spread over 10 years — and the plan is to pay for much of it by rescinding those parts of the Trump tax cut that most benefit the wealthy, starting with those making at least $400,000 a year. (Biden has gone so far as to say the bill, in the end, will cost nothing. I’m going to take the over on that.)

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That bill is in trouble for, well, at least 52 reasons, starting with two Democratic senators. One is West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who thinks it’s too expensive but won’t say how much he’s willing to spend. Another is Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, who also opposes the $3.5 trillion price tag but won’t name a figure she will accept. This is not Dems in disarray. It’s way beyond that. This is Dems ready to shoot themselves in the collective foot if they can’t pass the larger bill, without which they’re almost certainly doomed in the 2022 midterms. Of course, moderates say if they don’t pass the original infrastructure bill, they won’t survive the midterms.

Sinema and Manchin met separately with Biden on Tuesday, and neither had much to say afterward. Meanwhile, the House’s progressive caucus said they had as many as 60 votes against the infrastructure bill if the Senate doesn’t pass the larger one.

So, where does that leave matters? As far as I can see, it must mean that Pelosi has a plan, not that it’s clear to anyone what it could be. As of now, there is no $3.5 trillion bill. There’s no bill yet at all. Pelosi must know something, though, because she’s not going to let the human-infrastructure bill, with all its safety-net provisions, die. That’s not how she plays the game. And Biden, who is the ultimate Washington insider, must have something up his sleeve, right? Well, right? 

We’re waiting. This is, after all, as progressives keep explaining, the Biden agenda that’s on the line. Progressives are the ones who have been playing ball. They made their compromises to get to $3.5 trillion — in my world, the bill should be even larger and paid for by even greater cuts to Trump’s gift-to-the-wealthy tax law, which is adding trillions to the deficit.

And the thing is, I can pretty much guarantee that progressives in both the Senate and House will agree to a realistic number, one that addresses most of the issues on the table, if those in the middle — the ones who are always claiming to be the grownups — would at least come up with a starting place. Sinema is not only nowhere near  a starting place, she was holding a fundraiser Tuesday night with business groups opposed to the bill. And we know where Manchin, repping his coal state, stands on renewables and climate change.

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Oh, you’re right. I almost forgot. I said there were 50 other people in the way. There’s Manchin, there’s Sinema, and there is every single Republican senator. But the Republicans are a lost cause.

Republicans have universally opposed a bill that will provide help for tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, Americans. It was Donald Trump’s bogus claim of a rigged election in Georgia that gave Democrats two victories in late-breaking Senate races in the state, thus giving Dems control of the Senate. This is their chance, maybe their only chance, to pass such a bill, one requiring all 50 Senate Democrats to agree. That’s a heavy lift. But they’ve been working on this lift for a long time.

For Republicans, it’s not so much what’s in the plan, or even what the price tag turns out to be. They just don’t want to pass a bill, any bill, that would help Biden and help Democrats. They agreed — some of them, anyway — on the original infrastructure bill in order to feel free to oppose the larger, and more critical, bill. It’s their out.

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And you might be more willing to accept that they’ve come part way, except that we’ve just seen them unanimously reject a bill to raise the debt ceiling, thereby risking putting the nation in default. Raising the debt ceiling is not about spending money. It’s agreeing to pay for laws that have already been passed. The rejected bill also, incidentally, would have allowed the government to keep running for a few more months. Without it, there will be a shutdown. Yes, another shutdown. 

This could hardly be more irresponsible. If the debt ceiling isn’t increased, the country would default on its bills. That would be economic suicide, of course, and Mitch McConnell — who says it’s solely the majority party’s job to avoid default, which no one has ever said before — promises America will not default. You know, not ever. 

And he’s right, it won’t. Democrats will have to work something out, which probably means delaying the debt-ceiling vote. Republicans say Democrats should simply fold the debt-ceiling vote into their reconciliation bill. 

If, that is, there is a reconciliation bill. Don’t ask me what happens if there isn’t.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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