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The Democrats’ High-Stakes Sprint Through a Legislative Minefield

The party will try to fund the government, raise the debt ceiling, and pass an infrastructure deal before the end of the month. No big deal!

Nancy Pelosi grimaces at a press conference on Capitol Hill.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Do you remember the twenty-first night of September, when Congress careened toward a government shutdown and defaulting on the national debt, amid a brouhaha between progressive and moderate Democrats over two massive infrastructure bills?

The memories of this more innocent time in our lives are about to get subsumed within the chaos to come. Setting our celebratory ba-de-ya aside, it’s going to be a stressful few weeks for the Democratic Party and its narrow majorities in both houses of Congress, as well as for President Biden’s ambitious agenda, as the party negotiates its way through the minefield of intraparty factionalism and past a GOP that’s determined not to help.

Let’s start with the debt ceiling. If Congress doesn’t raise the limit on the amount the Treasury can borrow by mid- to late October, the government will default on its debts. We don’t strictly know what will happen if this occurs, but experts agree: It will be extremely bad. The Treasury won’t be able to disburse Social Security checks, child tax credits, or military salaries, amid other major priorities. Defaulting would also destabilize the global economy and could plunge the country into recession amid a still-ongoing pandemic.

Congress voted to raise the debt ceiling three times on a bipartisan basis under President Donald Trump, but Republicans have made it clear that they won’t aid President Joe Biden in the same way.

“This is playing with fire. Playing games with the debt ceiling is playing with fire and putting it on the back of the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in remarks on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

Democrats have attached a suspension to the debt ceiling—basically, kicking the can down the road to December 2022—to a continuing resolution, or C.R., funding the government. Because, as if lawmakers didn’t have enough on their plates, the government will run out of funding at the end of September. The House may vote on the C.R. as early as today and will likely pass it with little to no Republican support. (The C.R. initially contained a $1 billion provision for procurement for Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, but this provision was pulled, a decision that angered some moderates.)

The C.R. funds the government through December 3, so one thing we’ll get to look forward to during the holiday season is the struggle to fund the government all over again. It also includes more than $28 billion for emergency disaster funding in the wake of hurricanes that pounded the East Coast, as well as more than $6 billion in supplemental funding to aid Afghan refugees. In essence, Democrats are daring Republicans to vote against all this seemingly good stuff. Republicans are basically replying: Come at me, bro.

“We will not support legislation that raises the debt limit,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Monday. Fun fact: If McConnell opposes certain legislation, it’s a good bet that the vast majority of his caucus will oppose it, as well.

Is it still the case that most legislation requires 60 votes to advance in the Senate? Yes, and it is extremely unlikely that 10 Republicans will support the C.R., even with emergency relief and funding for refugees attached. (In theory, Republicans could just agree not to filibuster the C.R., which would mean that Democrats could pass it with a simple majority. But this is unlikely to happen, because Republicans want to make this as politically painful as possible for Democrats.)

Even some more moderate Republicans have said that they would not support a C.R. that includes a debt ceiling suspension. “I’m a ‘no’ all the way around,” Senator Mitt Romney said on Monday. Senator Susan Collins told reporters on Monday that she would support a “clean” C.R., including emergency relief and funding for Afghan refugees. But with a debt ceiling suspension included? “That’s different,” she said.

A few Republicans may vote to support the C.R. Louisiana Senator John Kennedy told reporters on Monday that he would support the C.R., because it included the emergency relief badly needed by his state. But he added that he did not think 10 Republicans would support it.

“He’s not bluffing on this,” Kennedy said about McConnell’s opposition to raising the debt limit, comparing the minority leader to a “Missouri mule who sits down in the mud and refuses to budge.”

The one concession that Republicans have offered is the argument that Democrats can just go ahead and raise the debt ceiling on their own. This is technically true, although a bit of an insincere argument given that the limit was previously raised on a bipartisan basis. But Democrats can accomplish this through reconciliation, a budgetary process that allows bills to pass with a simple majority in the Senate.

However, this will be a hassle, to put it mildly. If Democrats decide to do a new reconciliation bill—that is, separate from the reconciliation bill they are currently writing, which includes a flock of Democratic agenda items (more on that later)—that will involve several time-consuming procedural steps, including two vote-a-ramas: marathon amendment voting sessions that can often last overnight. It would also force Democrats to raise the limit instead of suspending it, meaning that they would have to provide a fixed number to how much the government can borrow, instead of allowing the country to continue borrowing until it hits the ceiling on a certain date.

Given that this option is time-consuming, it would bring the country closer to the X Date, the fun name we invented for the day in which the country would default on its debts and touch off all the horrible aftereffects in the global economy. Even if the government doesn’t default, just getting close to the X Date could have serious consequences, such as credit rating agencies downgrading the country’s credit. Democrats have so far refused to outline their backup plan for if and when Republicans vote down the C.R. and, by extension, the debt limit suspension.

“The House has a responsibility to act,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries told reporters on Tuesday. “Then it will be the Senate’s responsibility to act.”

Amid this contretemps over the debt ceiling, Democratic leadership is facing a veritable Kobayashi Maru–style challenge on two massive bills: a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that has passed in the Senate and the reconciliation bill, including a mishmash of Democratic priorities on health care, childcare, and climate change.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a minor concession to moderate House Democrats in late October by committing to having the House consider the bipartisan bill by next Monday, September 27. But progressives say that they won’t support the bipartisan bill unless it is coupled with the reconciliation bill—and it’s not certain at all that the reconciliation bill will be ready by that point.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, reiterated to reporters on Tuesday that many progressives would vote against the bipartisan bill if the reconciliation bill was not ready by next week.

“We’re ready to vote on both of those on Monday. We’re ready to pass the reconciliation bill, and we’re ready to pass the infrastructure bill, but as we’ve said from the beginning, we’re not going to just do a portion of the president’s agenda and leave the other one,” Jayapal said.

Jayapal met with Pelosi for around two hours on Tuesday afternoon, and emerged from the speaker’s office without a change in her position. She told reporters afterward that if the infrastructure bill was brought to the House floor without the reconciliation bill having passed first, it would fail—and Pelosi would not bring a vote to the floor unless she was certain it would pass.

I don’t think the speaker is going to bring a bill up that is going to fail,” Jayapal said.

Pelosi told reporters after her meeting with Jayapal that the reconciliation bill “is very much on schedule so far,” with the hope that it would be finished on Monday.

But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters earlier on Tuesday that “it may well be the case” that the reconciliation bill is not ready by next week.

“I expect both to pass the House of Representatives, and I expect them both to pass in the relatively near future,” Hoyer said. He also said that moderates and progressives “need to hold hands together” to pass both bills.

“I hope that every Democrat votes for both bills,” Hoyer said. “I don’t agree with the judgment of those who believe that it would somehow compel the moderate wing of the caucus to be more supportive [of the reconciliation bill].”

“Everybody’s very invested in their own thing,” Representative Jamie Raskin told The New Republic on Tuesday evening. “But I think people are equally invested in seeing the success of the Biden administration. So there’s a lot of behind the scenes maneuvering for people to get the things in the legislation that will make it a done deal for them.”

Moderates are indeed a key constituency in both houses. Senate Democrats have also balked at the $3.5 trillion top line laid out for the reconciliation bill, and moderate House Democrats insist that the House needs to vote on a reconciliation bill that can pass in the Senate. Pelosi cautioned Democrats in a letter to colleagues on Monday evening that the price tag may be lower than initially thought.

“I have promised Members that we would not have House Members vote for a bill with a higher topline than would be passed by the Senate. Hopefully, that will be at the $3.5 trillion number. We must be prepared for adjustments according to the Byrd rule and an agreed to number,” Pelosi said, referring to a rule that provisions in a reconciliation measure must be budgetary in nature. (The Senate parliamentarian ruled on Sunday that Democrats could not include a provision on immigration reform in the reconciliation bill, in accordance with Senate rules.)

Jeffries told reporters that there was still plenty of time to wrap up a reconciliation bill that was satisfactory to all factions of the Democratic Party.

“Six days is an eternity,” Jeffries asserted. “We’re going to get this done. We always do.”

What remains to be seen, however, is exactly how this perfect storm of conflicting agendas—on both the debt ceiling and the bipartisan and reconciliation bills—will be managed.

“I’ve been here for cliffs and crises and wars, and this is going to be the biggest mash-up we’ve ever had since I’ve been here, with the debt limit, with the government shutdown, with reconciliation, and with infrastructure,” a pessimistic Representative Peter DeFazio told reporters on Monday night. “And I have no idea how it all works out.”