WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden distilled the evolving high-stakes battle for his domestic agenda into its simplest form this week.
"We got three things to do," Biden said Monday, "the debt ceiling, the continuing resolution, and the two pieces of legislation."
That's four things, not three — depending on who is counting or how bills are reconfigured. But as acrobatic mathematics go in Washington, it's hardly a full twist. And the number of bills isn't as important as what's in them or how much difficulty Democrats are having passing them in the face of unified Republican opposition to most parts of the agenda.
Already this week, Senate Republicans blocked a measure that would have prevented a government shutdown and an unrelated default on federal debt. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi split Biden's "two pieces of legislation" — a catch-all social safety net bill and a measure loaded with infrastructure projects — to fulfill her promise to give moderates a chance to rally support for the latter.
Once-basic legislative acts, like funding the government and making payments on its existing debts, have become Herculean feats, and the partisan rhetorical wars over Biden's spending and tax plans often sound like they're being fought in code.
It can all be a little confusing — and overwhelming — for those trying to follow the turns and keep the pieces straight. Here are the moving parts to watch as Democrats try to avoid a government shutdown and a default while taxing corporations and high earners to pay for a Medicare expansion, care for seniors and kids, housing, green energy initiatives, road, highways, broadband and a host of other programs.
First: The big social spending measure, currently with a price tag of $3.5 trillion over 10 years, can be enacted with just the 50 senators in the Democratic caucus, along with Vice President Kamala Harris as a tie-breaker, and a simple majority of the House. It's not subject to a filibuster in the Senate.
It is worth noting, given the debt Congress has incurred in recent years, that this "reconciliation" bill is designed to be deficit- and debt-neutral. In other words, its tax increases cover the cost of its programs and targeted tax cuts without adding to the national debt. Senate and House moderates want the bottom line trimmed significantly, and Democratic leaders have acknowledged that they don't expect it to end up to $3.5 trillion.
The other big bill — which provides five years of funding for roads, bridges, rail, subways, water systems, green-energy initiatives and broadband accessibility, calls for about $550 billion in spending and would add about $250 billion to the debt — was negotiated by a bipartisan group of senators with the White House. The Senate passed it with 69 votes on Aug. 10, the House is currently considering it and is scheduled to vote on Thursday. If the House passes this infrastructure bill, it goes to the president for his signature.
Most Democrats want both the reconciliation bill and the infrastructure bill to become law. But there is tremendous friction between progressives and moderates over the size, scope and other particulars of the reconciliation bill.
Progressives have threatened to kill the infrastructure bill if moderates in both the House and Senate don't agree to help pass reconciliation.
Because of this tension, it is not yet clear whether the House will actually pass the infrastructure bill this week — or at all. And it is not yet clear whether, when, or at what size a reconciliation bill will become law.
Meanwhile, if Congress doesn't pass a short-term "continuing resolution" by Thursday, parts of the government will shut down. Senate Republicans blocked a House-passed continuing resolution Monday because it included a provision suspending the legal limit on national debt. Republicans want to force Democrats to separate the debt-limit provision and put up all the votes to avert a default on U.S. debt. The limit is separate from the reconciliation and infrastructure bills in that it caps debts already incurred by the government, not future spending.
Finally, the Treasury Department estimates that the debt limit will be hit on Oct. 18, according to a letter Secretary Janet Yellen sent to Pelosi Tuesday. Treasury has a limited set of tools to forestall default, but no one knows exactly when the government will bump up against the cap. "It is important to remember that estimates regarding how long our remaining extraordinary measures and cash may last can unpredictably shift forward or backward," Yellen wrote.
Though surely not intended that way, Yellen's basic message about the perils of unpredictability aptly describes all of the challenges facing Biden and Congress right now. For all the activity of late, there's been little discernible progress on any front.