How Republican threats could break Manchin and Sinema on the filibuster
House committees are presumably hard at work now, trying to meet a Sept. 15 deadline for completing their parts of the budget reconciliation bill that will fund President Joe Biden's Build Back Better plan, the $3.5 trillion companion bill to the $550 billion hard infrastructure deal agreed to in the Senate. The reconciliation bill will originate in the House, but passage in the Senate requires that they work closely with committees there to avoid pitfalls. The 50/50 partisan split in the Senate and the persistent deficit peacockery of Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin complicate the venture. The reconciliation bill can pass with just Democratic votes—it's the whole point of using this process, but all Democrats have to be on board—plus the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
Complicating everything is the calendar and self-inflicted pain. The new fiscal year starts Oct. 1, which requires a funding mechanism for government by that day. The self-inflicted pain is the result of a decision two years ago to take the weapon of the debt ceiling away from Donald Trump and suspend it until July 30, 2021. The Treasury Department has been using the various tools it has to move money around to avoid hitting the limit, but can only do that into October or early November at the latest. Which means Congress has to raise the debt ceiling, and Senate Republicans remain adamant that they will not vote to do so: 46 of them signed a letter saying so.
Putting a debt ceiling hike or suspension in the budget reconciliation bill—which, again, needs just 51 votes—seems like the obvious solution, but Senate Democrats are just as intent on forcing at least six of the 46 Republicans to break that pact. What they'll likely do is tack a short-term debt ceiling hike onto a short-term government funding bill and force the Republicans to decide if they want to shut down the government as well as risk the nation defaulting on its obligations, which include things like paying the troops, or veterans benefits, or Social Security payments, or food assistance as well as interest payments on debt.
Add to this general mess a summer of the worst wildfires in history as well as Hurricane Ida and whatever the rest of the hurricane season has in store. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had about $32 billion available at the end of July. More need for disaster spending is a big possibility.
There is also an urgent need for Congress to pass a federal eviction moratorium, with the Supreme Court's emergency order last week blocking it and upwards of 11 million at risk of being kicked out in the streets. More than 60 House Democrats have writing to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to demand quick action.
"Millions of people who are currently at risk of eviction, housing insecurity, or face becoming unhoused desperately look to their elected representatives to implement legislation that will put their health and safety first and save lives," the lawmakers wrote. "As your fellow colleagues, we implore you to act with the highest levels of urgency to advance a permanent legislative solution in a must pass legislative vehicle in order to extend the life-saving federal eviction moratorium for the duration of the deadly global health crisis." With the House now back in recess until Sept. 20, that quick action isn't likely and would also likely be blocked by Senate Republicans should the House pass it. That's another potential reconciliation bill provision.
House Democrats are looking at the debt ceiling from the reverse angle, contemplating a resolution that gives the president the power to waive the debt ceiling unilaterally, but gives Congress the right to veto him if they can come up with the votes to do so. Since Democrats control the floor in both chambers, that's a vote that would be unlikely to happen. And even if it did, it would be subject in turn to a presidential veto. But again, this would require Republican votes, which aren't likely to be there in the Senate.
Tying the debt ceiling to government funding still seems to be the plan Democrats want to follow, assuming that when they get to the edge of the cliff Republicans will decide not to jump after all. House Budget Chair John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat, told Politico: "As difficult as they can be, I can't imagine there aren't 10 Republicans who would vote not to default."
"We can't negotiate over it. We shouldn't negotiate over it. And Republicans are going to have to answer if they choose not to pay America's bills," said Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy. The scenario of Republicans pulling everyone off of the cliff and then being made accountable for it afterward is less than comforting, but Democrats do have to show that they're willing to be as irrational and dangerous as their Republican colleagues in these kinds of negotiations. As horrifying as that is.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could also be using this whole process to demonstrate to Manchin, Sinema, and whatever other filibuster reform cowards might be hiding behind them just how dangerous it is to continue giving Republicans veto power over everything. Blowing up the global economy—in the middle of pandemic resurgence—is just about as dangerous as it gets. Proving that there aren't 10 Republicans willing to buck their party to save the nation might just be what it takes to turn Manchin and Sinema. They're not going to care about poor people being evicted, no more than they care about poor people and people of color being denied the right to vote. But when the business lobby and the banks and the Chamber of Commerce get panicked about the debt ceiling, it might just be enough to bring them around.
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