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'A train wreck': Congress faces a daunting September as deadlines pile up

Democrats are grappling with how to avert a government shutdown while advancing infrastructure and budget bills at the heart of President Joe Biden's agenda.
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WASHINGTON — The Democratic-controlled Congress is preparing to address a packed to-do list this month with tangible and self-imposed deadlines that carry high stakes for President Joe Biden.

The government will have to be funded by Sept. 30 to prevent a shutdown. The debt limit will have to be extended this fall to prevent a global economic collapse. Flood insurance and surface transportation measures expire at the end of the month.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has set a Sept. 27 deadline to vote on the $550 billion infrastructure bill. Progressives have said they will vote down the bill if the $3.5 trillion budget measure to expand the safety net isn't ready by then, putting pressure on party leaders to write it quickly.

And with both chambers still on recess this week, legislative days are in short supply.

"The margin for error is razor-thin, the stakes are high, and Republicans have made clear they'll be of no help," said Democratic consultant Matt House, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "That's been true throughout the Biden administration, but September requires tackling the toughest issues yet, more of them, and with real deadlines attached."

Congressional committees have advanced some measures in recent weeks to fund the government. In the House, a group of Democrats joined Republicans to boost military spending by $23.9 billion.

Raising spending on the Defense Department is a high priority for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who will be key to defeating a filibuster and securing 60 votes to pass any bill. But McConnell has said the GOP won't support a debt limit increase, setting up a showdown.

And Democrats, who are seeking to pass a transformative economic agenda with wafer-thin majorities, are squabbling among themselves about the way forward on the infrastructure and safety net packages, which are the linchpin of Biden's domestic agenda.

Centrist Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., last week called for a "strategic pause" on the $3.5 trillion bill, saying he's unwilling to spend "anywhere near" that amount until his concerns about debt and inflation are quelled. His remarks sparked a fierce backlash from progressives, who threatened to tank the infrastructure bill, which he co-wrote, if he stands in the way of budget reconciliation.

Biden's role as peacemaker

Democrats will also have to agree on a series of tax increases on upper earners and corporations to help pay for the budget bill. Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., circulated a menu of options over the recess, several of which don't have party consensus.

It's unclear how the looming fights will affect Democrats' ability to coalesce behind a strategy to advance infrastructure and budget reconciliation.

"Late September stands to be a train wreck for congressional Democrats, with their dual-track strategy on a collision course, but it also presents a faint silver lining in the form of a familiar foe," said Liam Donovan, a lobbyist and former Republican operative. "There's virtually no way the reconciliation package can be ready in time to satisfy all the promises that have been made by leadership, meaning President Biden will have to play a more active role as peacemaker.

"The question is whether the muscle memory of fighting Republicans on the debt limit and the rest of the policy cliff helps paper over the party's divisions and heal intramural wounds," he added. "Either way, it's the biggest inflection point left in what might be the last fruitful year of the Democratic trifecta."

In addition to all that, Pelosi last week put a bill on the schedule to enshrine protections for abortion rights into federal law after the Supreme Court refused to block a new law in Texas that bans the vast majority of abortions.

And the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ida, from Louisiana to New York, could spark a debate about authorizing new relief funding.

There are also calls from progressive Democrats to extend the lapsed eviction moratorium, as well as unemployment benefits that expired over the recess, but neither appears to have the votes to pass.

Democrats' ability to handle these grueling tasks in September will shape their prospects to maintain control of Congress in the midterm elections next year, as history favors the party out of power to make gains.

Party elites want to campaign on the multitrillion-dollar safety net package, which includes new benefits that voters could feel quickly in the form of Medicare expansion, paid leave and a direct cash allowance for raising children.

"It's crunch time for Washington Democrats. Their odds of holding the House in the midterms are long, and campaign season will begin soon," said Michael Steel, a former House GOP leadership aide. "They have the slimmest margin possible and no room for error."