The easiest thing to say about Joe Biden’s comprehensive spending program, which brings a massive sewing machine to America’s badly torn safety net, is that the cost — to coin a phrase — is too damn high.
You know the number — $3.5 trillion, which, according to my calculations, is, in fact, really, really high.
Like, if you stacked $1 trillion in $1 bills, they would apparently stand 67,866 miles high. Now, multiply by that 3.5 and the bills — wait here a minute here while I get the calculator — would circle the earth something like eight times. (I didn’t actually do the math here. Some geek at CNBC did.)
And since Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema insist they won’t vote for a bill costing that much, and since every Senate Democrat needs to vote for the bill in order for it to pass under the suddenly less-obscure-than-they-used-to-be reconciliation rules, Biden and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and the House progressives and Bernie Sanders have to figure out how to trim $3.5 trillion to closer to, say, $2 trillion.
Before we start trimming, there are a couple of things you should know. One, the bill covers 10 years, meaning it’s actually a $350 billion-a-year bill, which doesn’t seem quite so onerous. Two, the Democrats have had to stuff as much as they can into one bill because with a 50-50 Senate, the only way they can pass most bills is through reconciliation.
That’s why we’re not seeing voter reform bills or immigration bills get through the Senata any time soon. To get those, Democrats would have to kill or modify the filibuster. That is unlikely to happen because, well, see above (Manchin, Joe; Sinema, Kyrsten).
So, let the trimming begin.
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The experts say Dems would probably have to choose between universal paid family and medical leave or the expanded child tax credit. Losing either one of those would be like a knife to the heart of every liberal soul in America and, according to the polls, a lot of other Americans.
Family leave is standard fare for nearly all the world’s richest countries. This bill would give 12 weeks for care of a newborn or for a sick relative. The cost is set at something like $550 billion over 10 years.
If that stays, can Democrats also afford to make permanent the child tax credit — Michael Bennet’s baby — which gives families up to $3,600 for each child? To make it permanent would cost something like $800 billion. Manchin wants to means-test it down to the truly disadvantaged, which would greatly limit the bill’s utility. No one knows what Sinema wants. Some are proposing to make it a five-year sunset bill — it’s now a one-year sunset law — and hope, against hope, that Washington dysfunction would somehow recede after five years, not exactly a great bet. But it would cut the cost significantly.
All the enhanced child tax credit does is help 90% of American families and lift nearly half of poor children out of poverty. Are we really going to lose that? The polling on it is something like 85% positive.
The bill also has something like $600 billion moving us in support of green energy, which Manchin, the coal baron from West Virginia, really, really doesn’t like, but which could go a small way — and at least in the right direction — toward fending off climate-change catastrophe, if it’s not already too late.
What else do we have in there?
There are improvements in Obamacare, to cover dental, vision and mental health, and also long-term care for seniors. It would also improve Medicaid, bringing health insurance to a couple million of the still uninsured. There’s a part that brings down pharmaceutical drug costs. Is there any Democrat, other than apparently Sinema, who opposes that? How about anti-vax Republicans — aren’t they solidly anti-Big Pharma?
OK, there’s universal kindergarten and prekindergarten. There’s free community college. Enhanced school meal programs. There’s more, but excuse me if I don’t see much fat in these programs, although, to be fair, there’s fat in every program. But if you’re looking for Sumo-wrestler-sized fat, we can start with the defense budget, which dwarfs this bill.
The conventional wisdom is that Democrats, and especially Joe Biden, have done a terrible job explaining what’s in the bills. The programs, taken individually, nearly all poll well. Even taken together, they poll well. And the method of paying for much of the cost — by taxing the rich — is a huge polling winner.
This once, the conventional wisdom seems right. In the tortuous path to get Obamacare approved — a path that included Sarah-Palin-led discourses on still-never-seen death panels and many other distortions — we still had some idea what we were arguing about. How much do you think Obamacare was hurt by how hard it was for Democrats to come together on a bill? Here’s a hint: a lot.
Apparently all 50 Republican senators would vote against Biden’s social-spending bill, at any cost — if only because of the awful Build Back Better name — and 48 Democratic senators are ready to vote for something close to $3.5 trillion.
It’s not on the House progressives, who know they’ll have to compromise because otherwise there won’t be a bill passed, and that includes the original infrastructure bill, still waiting for House approval. Let’s face it — a $2 trillion social-programs bill and a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill would put Biden in LBJ territory. And Lyndon Johnson had huge majorities when he passed his Great Society agenda.
It’s on Biden, who ran for president on being a deal maker— as did Trump, and we saw how that turned out — to get a bill that Manchin and Sinema will approve. Over time, Manchin — the most conservative Senate Democrat — has at least been willing to talk about where compromises might come. Sinema, the former Green Party member and Ralph Nader stalwart, who apparently enjoys playing the outsider role to the hilt, won’t even go that far, despite the fact that Arizona Democrats seem ready to abandon her in droves.
“We’ve got 48 senators who support $3.5 trillion. We’ve got two who don’t,” Sanders said. “It is wrong, it is really not playing fair, that one or two people think they should be able to stop what 48 members of the Democratic caucus want, what the American people want, what the president of the United States wants.”
OK, you might want to point out that Sanders has voted in principled dissent on more bills than you can count, and playing fair hasn’t always been his most critical priority, but the truth is that some kind of bill will pass. Because it has to.
Because if you think Biden’s polling numbers are problematic now, you can imagine what they’d look like if Biden doesn’t get his most important program passed. And if you worry about a midterm bloodbath — which is pretty standard for parties in power, but which could cost Democrats majorities in both houses of Congress — just let the always handy Dems-in-disarray meme be the only thing that survives this process.
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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