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Congress returned to the Capitol this week to dive headlong into a pile of high-stakes, must-pass legislation with pressing deadlines:

  • House committees will grind to meet today’s deadline to assemble the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, which contains much of President Biden’s human infrastructure.
  • The House is on the clock to vote on the Senate-passed $1.2 trillion physical infrastructure bill.
  • Congressional leaders must approve a short-term government spending deal ahead of October 1, the start to the new fiscal year, to avoid a partial federal shutdown.
  • Congress also must okay a debt limit increase before the borrowing limit is reached next month or else risk defaulting on the nation’s credit.
  • Congressional Democrats continue trying to find a consensus on national voting rights legislation, which may be pyrrhic in the absence of any Republican support.

Budget Reconciliation 

House Democrats are scrambling to complete work on their $3.5 trillion human infrastructure reconciliation package and the tax increases to pay for as much $2 trillion of the total. The House Budget Committee will assemble all the pieces into a single mammoth package, centering on social spending programs, expanded federal health care benefits, a universal child tax credit; climate change policies and greater investments in preschool, K-12 and higher education.

Democratic leaders appear determined to bring the measure to the House floor for a vote by the end of this month, despite the complexity of what supporters describe as the most sweeping expansion of the social safety net since LBJ’s War on Poverty.

But with Republicans united in opposition, Democratic leaders are struggling to hold their members in line, with only three House votes to spare and zero margin for error in the evenly divided Senate. Under the budget reconciliation process, Democrats can pass legislation with a simple majority vote in both chambers, but they face a tough task with such razor thin majorities. 

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a key swing Democratic vote, flatly declared his opposition to any package costing $3.5 trillion Sunday in a round of appearances on the network talk shows. “He will not have my vote on $3.5 trillion dollars and Chuck knows that,” Manchin said, referring to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

Rattling off a long list of complaints about the package, Manchin said the proposed tax increases are too high, while too many spending programs would offer benefits to wealthier households that don’t need assistance. He suggested limiting the package to around $1.5 trillion, or what Manchin believes is the ceiling on a more modest set of tax increases that would keep the US economy “competitive.”

House Democrats are preparing to propose more than $2 trillion in tax increases on corporations and upper-income households. And Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent allied with House progressives, said Sunday that a $1.5 trillion package is a nonstarter.

All the while, the separate bipartisan infrastructure bill approved by the Senate last month is still in limbo until the reconciliation package is resolved. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised moderates that the chamber would vote on the bipartisan measure by September 27, but progressives say they will not support that bill until work nears completion on the reconciliation bill. 

Government Spending and Debt Ceiling Deadlines

Democrats’ internal wrangling over the massive social spending plan will soon be eclipsed by urgent problems. Congress has just 18 days to strike a deal on federal spending by September 30, and the debt ceiling must be raised soon after that to avoid tandem calamities: a government shutdown and a default on US debt, which could combine to slow or stunt economic recovery. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is holding firm that his caucus won’t contribute any votes for a blanket debt limit increase and he’s challenged Democrats’ to do it alone. Top Democrats insist they have a plan – they just don’t want to talk about it yet.

A continuing resolution to extend existing government spending levels through December 10 is under discussion to avert a government shutdown. House Democrats are planning a vote on it next week and will likely include disaster aid for states plagued with wildfires and floods, assistance for the Afghanistan withdrawal and the debt ceiling, according to aides.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senat Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are under intense pressure and looming deadlines to squire passage of budget reconciliation, a physical infrastructure bill, a debt ceiling increase, a short-term spending extension and a scaled-back voting rights measure in the next two to three weeks.

The strategy attempts to attract Republicans from areas hit hard by recent natural disasters to vote ‘yes’ on aid to their communities along with the debt ceiling, which they would oppose as standalone legislation. Democrats hope pairing the debt limit with a bill to avoid a government shutdown, as well as disaster relief, makes it impossible for Republicans from impacted areas like Louisiana and Mississippi to vote ‘no’.

No final decision has been made, and success is far from guaranteed. But even with unilateral power to deal with the debt ceiling themselves, Democrats say they don’t want to set the precedent that one party is expected to address the debt limit when they are in charge.

Republicans say Democrats should increase the debt ceiling along party lines as part of their $3.5 trillion reconciliation measure. But that solution isn’t workable either, as several moderate Democratic senators aren’t willing to cast a party-line vote to increase the debt ceiling. Democrats don’t want to give Republicans a political talking point, especially since the debt increase is in part needed because of revenue shortfalls from former President Donald Trump’s tax cut.

Voting Rights
Congressional Democrats are under intense political pressure to pass voting rights legislation in the face of a growing number of restrictions approved in Republican-controlled states.

The New York Times reports that Senate Democrats have lined up behind a scaled back bill first outlined by Manchin and negotiated by Schumer. Called the Freedom to Vote Act, the measure would establish national standards for ballot access. It includes a voter identification requirement that many Democrats have strongly opposed, but which is less onerous that many state requirements. Voters could present a variety of identification in paper or digital form to verify their identity.

A continuing resolution to extend existing government spending levels through December 10 is under discussion to avert a government shutdown.

Other provisions include requiring a minimum of 15 consecutive days of early voting that includes two weekends, permitting all voters to request mail-in ballots, establishing automatic voter registration programs and making election day a national holiday.

The measure extends beyond voting. It establishes specific criteria for drawing congressional lines to reduce partisan gerrymandering, requires disclosure of dark-money donors and strengthens protection from partisan interference for state and local election officials.

Schumer is giving Manchin space to find enough Senate Republican supporters. Manchin has said federal election law should be bipartisan. In a 50-50 Senate, it must be to escape a filibuster. Schumer hasn’t ruled out other procedural steps, such as a rule change to exempt voting rights legislation from filibusters, though support for that step remains a question mark in the Senate Democratic caucus.