WASHINGTON — Joe Biden won the presidency. But Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., won the power to shape the Democratic agenda in Washington.
After a faint and apparently feint call to spend $6 trillion in a budget "reconciliation" bill that would vastly expand Medicare, public housing and federal efforts to combat climate change, Sanders declared unmitigated victory when he and fellow Democratic Party heavyweights came to agreement on a $3.5 trillion bottom line.
It would be "the most significant piece of legislation passed since the Great Depression," Sanders said, with characteristic hyperbole.
The measure hasn't passed, however. The details aren't even public. And the resolution he's talking about, one piece of a two-track spending package, only paves the way for the filibuster-proof reconciliation process to begin.
Not to mention that since the Depression, Congress created the interstate highway system and Medicare and Medicaid, along with enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and establishing several Cabinet-level agencies that deal with health, environmental protection, transportation and housing.
Moreover, Sanders faces challenges from centrists in both chambers, as well as some allies who are starting to make demands that might not be achievable under Congress's arcane rules.
But progressives sounded ecstatic notes Wednesday.
"Bernie Sanders did a phenomenal job to have so many of our priorities on child care, education, infrastructure and health care included," Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said. "As long as the bill is not watered down and has strong climate provisions, I expect progressives to rally around it."
The dollar figure would amount to the largest spending measure ever enacted by Congress, eclipsing the March 2020 Covid-19 relief bill by more than 50 percent. And it makes room for versions of the major planks of Sanders's campaign agenda, including elements of the Green New Deal designed to combat climate change, hundreds of billions of dollars to build affordable housing, and an expansion of Medicare that reflects the first phase of his controversial Medicare for All plan.
Republicans were quick to warn that pumping so much money into the economy would create new inflationary pressure at a time when the price of a basket of household goods is already rising.
"It’s disgusting that in the face of Biden’s inflation crisis that has devastating impacts on America’s low and fixed-income families, like mine growing up, Joe Biden and the Democrats can’t face reality and be fiscally responsible to protect American families," Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., a potential 2024 presidential hopeful, said in a statement.
In an interview on Fox Business, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the chair of the Senate Republican Conference, called the Democrats' plan a "freight train to socialism."
But they aren't alone. Democrats are slow to criticize Biden on the record, but many worry about the economic implications of their party's agenda, and how they will play with voters.
"The serious question Democrats must start asking is if or when will moderates and independent voters rebel against such record levels of spending and the higher inflation that might follow," said one Democratic strategist who has worked on Capitol Hill and presidential campaigns. "If they do rebel, we will get slaughtered in the 2022 midterm elections."
Some House Democratic centrists hope that their counterparts in the Senate will balk at the size of the deal, along with the scope of tax hikes necessary to pay for the government programs. They're looking to Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., to force party leaders to reduce the bottom line.
"That proposal sent a lot of alarm bells to moderates in the House," said one senior House Democratic aide who works with centrists. "We’re hoping that Manchin and Sinema will step up and bring this down to earth."
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., now have to figure out how to move the budget resolution through both of their chambers — a step that would launch a "reconciliation" bill — as well as a traditional infrastructure package. A bipartisan group of senators is working to produce a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that would likely win support from House moderates in both parties, but that process has been slow and unwieldy.
And even though progressives are happy with where the leadership's budget stands right now in terms of the $3.5 trillion price tag, there are signs of potential rebellion within their ranks. Rep. Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, D-Ill., said last week that he can't support a reconciliation bill if it doesn't include a path to citizenship for certain sets of undocumented immigrants.
Others on the left say that they will be watching closely to see whether a final reconciliation bill comprises their cherished climate-change initiatives.
"By far the biggest red line will be about investment in climate," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group that has sought to rally the left wing of the party.
For progressives who support Sanders, the trick is getting as many of their priorities into the reconciliation measure without killing both bills. If a single Democratic senator objects to the deal — or more than five House Democrats do — it can't go forward. And progressives might try to sink a bipartisan infrastructure deal if they think moderates will stop the reconciliation measure.
"The question is how do we draw the line carefully but also be able to deliver," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "Any three or four people have a lot of power."
It's not clear yet which of the progressives' priorities can survive a "Byrd bath" — the Senate's term of art for cleaning a bill of provisions that don't conform to reconciliation rules. Immigration policy changes and some of the climate provisions could be on the chopping block.
For now, though, progressives are excited by Sanders's ability to frame the debate around a big dollar figure that could encompass much of his agenda.
"He's got a tough job," Jayapal said, "and we've got his back."