Terry H. Schwadron
Sept. 21, 2021
The only two things clear about Joe Biden’s big, $3.5-trillion social services bill is that Biden has bet his presidency on it and that he’s having trouble corralling his own Democrats. Republicans, naturally, stand opposed to the whole idea of the bill, and are feasting on dissension among opponents.
An adverse ruling from the Senate parliamentarian has ruled out including immigration measures under the strict rules for the “budget reconciliation” approach that Democrats want to use to avoid a Republican filibuster. Meanwhile, two prime Democrats, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who met with Biden this week, continue threats to sink the measure over both its top-line number and over a few policy questions in which they seem to have personal interest.
Also, at stake are promises for a final vote on the agreed-upon $1 trillion physical infrastructure vote which progressives want linked to approval of the larger “human infrastructure” package.
And, hanging over the dispute is a repeated Republican promise to vote against raising the federal debt level that addresses past legislation. That is forcing an attempt to extend any informal deadline about paying bills until the end of the year, which is no solution at all. And Biden is due to meet with other leaders at the UN in the ever-frustrating search for measurable commitments to slow climate change.
In short, we are in the sausage-making time, and, as usual, it’s not pretty.
The news out of Washington is awash with reports about lobbyists seeking to keep pet projects alive and threats from all sides about dire consequences for no action. The bill covers so many policy areas from health care to climate investment that even the effort to stuff it into one bill is confusing.
Among the key areas in contention this week: Immigration, infrastructure, climate, prescription drugs — and federal debt.
No to Immigration
The decision this weekend by Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, a kind of rules referee, against the Democrats’ plan to provide eight million green cards for four large swaths of immigrants, was both predictable and a blow for Biden.
The rules here are to keep all “reconciliation” matters to budgetary ones and trying to shoehorn immigration naturalization reforms into a spending bill as a national economic issue just did not fly. She said the sought polices are “by any standard a broad, new immigration policy” and therefore not appropriate in a spending bill.
Since loosened immigration policy is among the many items that Senate Republicans exist to thwart, this will kill the proposal. Democrats had wanted to open a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, holders of temporary protected status, agricultural and “essential” workers. Getting legal permanent resident status allows an individual to eventually apply for citizenship if they can meet other qualifications.
Of course, there is nothing stopping Congress from considering a comprehensive immigration bill except for the Senate need for 60 approval votes in a split house.
From a political standpoint, it will make left-leaning lawmakers more insistent on getting everything else they want in this huge bill.
Manchin and Fossil Fuels
The New York Times took a good look at Manchin’s desires to rewrite the climate portions of the bill “in a way that tosses a lifeline to the fossil fuel industry — despite urgent calls from scientists that countries need to quickly pivot away from coal, gas and oil to avoid a climate catastrophe.”
In short, Manchin, who collects a ton of money from oil, coal and gas industries and has personal investments in those industries, insists that the climate section continue to allow natural gas flowing to power plants to make electricity, according to sources.
West Virginia is second in coal and seventh in natural gas production among the 50 states, noted The Times, and those industries have given Manchin the most campaign donations among all senators, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets, a research organization that tracks political spending.
Manchin met with Biden this week, and though no one is discussing it, reportedly disagreed with the president, who wants to move power plants away from fossil fuels over the next decade for wind, solar, or nuclear options.
Manchin apparently supports some climate measures but wants to extend the use of coal and natural gas, backing help to areas hurt during transition, for example. He backs technologies to capture carbon emissions for burial, a technique that could allow further use of goal or gas.
Again, Republicans are letting Manchin carry the burden here, standing back from the entire debate, which is putting more pressure on progressives looking for measurable
Sinema and Drug Prices
Meanwhile, Senator Sinema apparently objects to drug pricing reforms in the bill, as noted by Politico.
As with four other Democrats in the House who have raised objections during committee hearings, Sinema receives above-average campaign money from Big Pharma, according to Kaiser Health News.
Basically, the Democratic bill would authorize the government to negotiate with drug prescriptions over Medicare. Nor does she want the alternative put forward by moderates.
Just what Sinema wants is unclear.
Put it all together and corralling even one side for pushing this reconciliation bill is a fulltime job.