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Explaining reconciliation and the social issues at stake, with Mary C. Curtis

This week's Equal Time podcast gets wonky

Congress will be back in earnest next week with a lot on the to-do list, including two infrastructure bills.

The first, a bipartisan, Senate-passed infrastructure package, would spend billions of dollars to improve roads, bridges, waterways — but it’s yet to be passed by the House. And then there’s the partisan “human” infrastructure bill that would provide sweeping funds for President Joe Biden’s social agenda, including subsidies for child care, education, paid leave, health care, clean energy programs and more.

Democrats’ only chance at passing such a bold measure without GOP support? A process called budget reconciliation.

Mary C. Curtis, Roll Call columnist and host of the Equal Time podcast, sat down with Norm Ornstein, senior fellow emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute, to better understand reconciliation. She also talked with Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison to understand more about what’s at stake for the party with the bold social priorities.

Here’s a transcript — edited for clarity and brevity — of both conversations:

Mary Curtis: There’s the infrastructure bill. And there’s a reconciliation bill, as well. Let’s understand more about this process called reconciliation … What’s going on right now?

Norm Ornstein: It was originally designed to be something relatively minor, back when the Budget Act was put in place in the 1970s. It was going to be a way in which you took the budget that the House and Senate would pass and basically reconcile the numbers and send instructions to the other committees so that they could carry out the taxing and spending that were in the budget. But it didn’t take long before members of Congress realized that it could have significantly more power. And probably the main reason for this is that the Senate built in different procedures for reconciliation than they have for any other legislative opportunities. And that meant 50 votes, or a simple majority — an expedited up-or-down vote.

Now, it’s been used for many major pieces of legislation involving Medicare and Medicaid, almost every single big tax cut from the Bush era all the way through Trump. It was used for, of course, the Affordable Care Act … to get it originally through the Senate. But now, where almost everything is filibustered by Republicans who have 50 seats, but only need 40 to block things from taking place … reconciliation becomes the way in which you can shoehorn in a lot of different priorities.

And we saw it with the American Rescue Act, the first major sweeping piece of legislation that passed early in the Biden administration. We see it now with what would be … a dramatic change in not just fiscal policy, but social policy for America.

Now, I would add, Mary, that it’s also, of course, not the only thing going on. As you mentioned, initially, we had a separate bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate with bipartisan support, enough to get over a filibuster — not done through reconciliation — with much smaller new spending [at] about $550 billion. The reconciliation bill that they’ve been talking about is $3.5 trillion. But, they’re joined together at the hip. And that’s something we might want to talk about as well.

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Curtis: Yeah, well, let’s talk about that. Progressives, particularly, want the infrastructure and reconciliation bills linked. Can you explain why?

Ornstein: So, the bipartisan bill was dramatically cut back. There’s a lot of pent-up demand for physical infrastructure. And that’s what’s been included in this bill. But also, because it was required to get Republican votes, [it] didn’t include any revenues from the almost $2 trillion tax cut passed during the Trump administration. Now, in the House, the only reason that they would go along with this scaled-back bipartisan bill was the belief and the promise that they could then get in a partisan, more ambitious infrastructure bill that includes what is being called human infrastructure. And that includes child care support, an extension and expansion of the child tax credit, a whole lot of things involving climate change, and significantly more on the physical infrastructure part as well.

At one point, President Biden made … I think you could say at least a political mistake in saying he would not sign the bipartisan bill unless it came simultaneously with this broader reconciliation bill. Republicans revolted and he stepped back a little bit and they were able to get the support in the Senate for that bipartisan package. But in the House, some of the more moderate Democrats said, we don’t want to join these bills at all, we have an urgent need for that bipartisan bill [to get] passed or we won’t vote for anything. And the compromise that Speaker Pelosi worked out was they would pass the budget resolution, which sets the table for reconciliation, and guarantee a vote on that bipartisan package by Sept. 27.

Now, in the meantime, the Senate is trying to work out some compromise on that reconciliation package that will get the 50 votes that they need. And they’re only going to get them from Democrats. And of course, we know that there are some Democrats, Joe Manchin, in particular, and Kyrsten Sinema, who are revolting against that large package. And now we’re waiting to see whether they can bring that package together. If not, we will get that vote on Sept. 27. And if I had to guess right now, my guess is that progressive Democrats will not vote for the bill. And then we’ll have to wait and see what happens with the two packages and whether they can work something out that will satisfy all the Democrats.

Keep in mind that there are 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans in the Senate, with the vice president able to cast the tie-breaking vote. But in the House, Nancy Pelosi can lose only three Democrats if she doesn’t get any Republicans. And that leaves the margin perilously thin.

Curtis: What your thoughts are on the fact that Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has really thrown down the gauntlet several times on this package?

Ornstein: He has made statements that suggest that the line that he’s drawing is very far from where most of the other Democrats want to be. He’s now said that he wants to cut very substantially back on some of the really important things that progressives want in human infrastructure. And he’s made it pretty clear that he doesn’t like the climate change aspects of this. Now, Joe Manchin comes from coal country. And what’s now coming out is that his family is deeply invested — to the tune of many, many millions of dollars — in fossil fuels. So he’s getting a lot of pushback on this front that this is a self-interest thing. But Manchin is a politician. I suspect what’s going to happen is that President Biden will sit down with Joe Manchin and they will try and cut a deal. I don’t think it’s going to be in the range of $1 trillion or $1.5 trillion … but it’ll be less than the $3.5 trillion.

But … Sinema is a major player in this as well. And while she is, on the whole, more progressive when it comes to these social policies, you cannot believe necessarily that if Manchin cuts a deal, Sinema’s gonna say that’s fine. I think she’s a little annoyed that he’s the one who seems to be the only kingmaker here. And there may be others who will raise their voices.

Curtis: Do you think that Americans’ views are changing on how much the government should be involved in addressing things like income inequality and other issues that affect their lives?

Ornstein: So, you know, we have to keep in mind that with the narrowest margins imaginable, Joe Biden managed to get this American Rescue Plan [passed]. I actually think that the public is not averse to a larger government role. These things go in cycles, and there is a real understanding that in many of these areas — from housing to child care to support for families — that we need to have a substantial government role. We’re back, I think, to understanding that we need at least a safety net that government provides that’s a pretty robust one. But the backdrop of all of this is the tribalism of our politics. You know, I see so many analysts saying the country is deeply divided over COVID. Well, that’s true at one level, but the fact is that we have a political party that’s decided to stake its ground on … vaccinations and masking, that those are not just ineffective, but wrong. We’re now seeing demonstrations trying to block people from getting vaccinated. We see threats against school boards for wanting to impose mask mandates in schools. So we’re in a different world now. And we’re in a world where almost anything that President Biden proposes is going to be bitterly opposed by those in the other party, who see all of this as evil. So broad public consensus, bipartisan support is not going to happen in most areas. And that makes these policies more radioactive than they otherwise would be.

Curtis: Now, to get a little bit wonky again, the parliamentarian can pull back on some of this reconciliation package, if it is judged not to deal with fiscal issues, is that correct?

Ornstein: Yes. The way in which reconciliation has been designed, the measures in it have to primarily impact the budget or on fiscal policy. Now, they also have other constraints; they’re supposed to not add to deficits or debt after a 10-year period. We’ve seen all kinds of almost ridiculous manipulations. But the fact is, the parliamentarians can block some actions from taking place. And the Senate parliamentarian did say that an increase in the minimum wage — which was brought up as part of the American Rescue Plan — did not meet the characteristics of reconciliation. So, some things that … might be vulnerable. But most of what we’re talking about here, you can make a case has a budget or fiscal impact.

Curtis: Now that Norm Ornstein has laid out just how the process of reconciliation works, let’s turn to DNC Chair Jamie Harrison to talk about the importance of this legislation to the Democratic agenda. Chair Harrison, can you sum up what the reconciliation bill means for the Democratic Party and the Biden agenda?

Jaime Harrison: And, you know, this bill, this legislation right now, it’s just extremely important. And I think it’s crucial for this administration and their agenda. Because it’s our opportunity as Democrats to support families, not just for this generation, but I think generations to come. This will be just a game changer in terms of policy.

Curtis: When this bill was first announced, it seemed almost FDR-esque. It tackled child care, parental leave, so many other issues that have been passed over for decades. But then many of them are on the chopping block now that the bill’s being crafted. So what are the options?

Harrison: Well, the things that this bill still includes would expand pre-kindergarten education, which is so crucial to the next generation of Americans — child care for working families. You know, my wife and I are both professionals ourselves. And I understand how hard child care has been, particularly in this COVID era that we’re living in. Family leave is also important health care. You will see some changes in the Medicare program, adding dental and vision and so many other aspects of Medicare that aren’t existing right now — the ability to negotiate on prescription drugs and drop that down. It’ll also extend the child tax credit, which thus far has helped millions of kids escape the ravages of poverty. And this bill also includes and commits funds to combating climate change. We see right now with Hurricane Ida and the devastation that it has caused for places that haven’t had to deal with hurricanes that much in the Northeast. And this is going to be commonplace, folks.

Curtis: How are you dealing with and balancing the progressives and the moderates in the party?

Harrison: Yeah, you know, this isn’t my first rodeo dealing with tight margins and trying to get legislation through Congress. I’m happy that I no longer have to do the vote counting. It used to be that I was the floor director for the majority whip’s office, when Democrats won back control in 2006. And my job was to get the 218 votes in order to pass any bill with a 15-seat majority. At that time, I thought it was a slim majority. What they have to deal with now is even more slim. But you know, in the end of the day, this is what I tell the members of Congress, that it takes all of them — Democratic progressives, Democratic moderates, Democratic conservatives — it takes all of them to get things done so that they ultimately can deliver for the people that send them to Washington, D.C., to represent them.

Curtis: We are already seeing Republicans attacking this package as being too broad. Some have even dropped that dreaded “s” word — socialism. How are you going to sell the piece that you are talking about today, with our listeners?

Harrison: The greatest asset that we have as a nation are the people of this great nation. That’s what makes America so special. And we got to do all that we can in order to protect the people in order to make sure that they can all live the American dream. Where the Republicans are thinking about tax cuts for major corporations, we’re thinking about how grandma and grandpa — with prescription drug prices going through the roof — how they can make sure that they can eat, they can pay their electric bill, and at the same time get their medicine. That’s what the Democratic Party is thinking about. And the Republicans had an opportunity during the Trump administration to address many of these issues. But they failed to do that. You know what they did do? They passed billions of dollars in tax cuts for the largest corporations and the most wealthy in this country. You know, the working-class people were secondary. But Joe Biden has said to the American people, and this Democratic Party is going to keep that commitment, that I’m thinking about you and your families and your communities, first and foremost, and I’m going to be working on behalf of you. And so that’s going to be our message going into it.

Curtis: What kind of compromises are do you think you will have to make, and that will keep [all Democrats] happy?

Harrison: It takes both progressive and conservative Democrats in order to make a majority. And if they want to stay in the majority, that means you got to find ways to work together in order to sustain that. And that’s really, really important. I need to figure out what it is that are their individual interests. What are the things that are the priorities for their particular districts, and they need to come to the table and have a conversation with their colleagues in order to paint a path forward. And I believe that it will happen. I’ve seen it happen in the past.

Curtis: What role is the president plays, and you’re working with him?

Harrison: I think the President plays an immense role. You know, he is the leader of our party. And so, you know, when you run into roadblocks in the end of the day, he will be the, you know, the executive, the decider-in-chief to help broker deals when they need to be, need to happen. But he’s laid out the parameters for what he wants, you know, and these are all based off the promises that he made the American people when he ran for president. And so Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer and so many leaders in the House and the Senate are working in order to make that happen. And I believe, again, as somebody who’s been a veteran of these issues and these type of deliberations in the past, it will happen and the president will have a bill to sign, and in the end of the day, will make a dramatic and positive impact on the lives of the American people.

Curtis: What happens if this bill, after all these markups, etc., compromises, it doesn’t pass?

Harrison: It’s going to pass. That’s not an option. We are going to get something to to the president on his desk, so that he can sign and continue to deliver for the American people.

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