Right-Wing Democrats Ramp Up Assault on Biden Agenda

The next few weeks will see some of the most important political jockeying in half a century.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, speaks during a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on March 5, 2020. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When Joe Biden entered office in January, Democrats knew they had two years to enact a mountain of critical legislation before midterm elections threatened their slim majorities in the House and Senate. That two-year window is now down to roughly one. But much of that time will be spent campaigning, meaning that the next month or two will shape the direction of not just the Biden administration, but arguably also the course of U.S. and global politics for decades to come.

With the administration’s $3.5 trillion vehicle careening toward a September 27 deadline, conservative Democrats have been at work trying to derail the White House’s ambitious agenda. First, they cobbled together a small, corporate-friendly bipartisan infrastructure package that they hoped would take the steam out of the larger effort. When that didn’t work, the conservative bloc pushed to shrink its size down from $6 trillion to $3.5 trillion, then pushed to decouple the two efforts. They are now threatening to destroy it altogether.

Last week, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., reentered the fray, telling Biden that if the infrastructure bill wasn’t passed on schedule, she would vote no on the crucial reconciliation package, as Politico Playbook reported this morning. Over the weekend, Axios reported that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was advocating yet again for a “strategic pause” to the spending, this time until 2022.

Their maneuvers risk — or are intended to cause — a complete sabotage of the Democrats’ once-in-a-generation chance to address pressing climate, health care, and immigration issues. The media, meanwhile, struggles to narrate the byzantine parliamentary moves required to push legislation through the Senate with a simple majority, making the entire fight difficult for a weary public to follow.

As the Democrats press forward with their $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, the confusion has led to multiple cycles of coverage suggesting that this or that Democratic priority had been killed, or this or that provision had been approved. But in reality, the bill is still being written, and its ultimate authors are still picking from among the various pieces of text to pass through committees, ditching some elements and adding others that never went through the process. Its destination is the House Budget Committee and, most importantly, the House floor.

Democratic Reps. Kathleen Rice of New York, Scott Peters of California, and Kurt Schrader of Oregon were the focus of significant (and well-earned) ire last week for blocking a measure in the Energy and Commerce Committee that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies. There are few policy priorities that Democratic candidates have spent as much time promising voters they’d accomplish if given the opportunity.

But the trio’s theatrical votes against the provision by no means doom it. Party leadership can reinsert it through a so-called manager’s amendment in the Budget Committee, meaning that those three members’ opinions on drug pricing are only worth caring about if they are strong enough to drive them to vote the whole package down. And if a member is opposed to the bill entirely — as Schrader has suggested that he is — then what they think of an individual provision is meaningless. Only their vote on the House floor matters.

On the floor, Democrats can afford to lose just three votes, and both Schrader and Stephanie Murphy of Florida are expected to be nays. Maine Rep. Jared Golden is always a tough vote for Democrats to get. But one formerly reliable no vote, Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, was knocked into retirement in 2020, thanks to a progressive primary challenge by the seat’s current incumbent, Marie Newman; she’s expected to vote yes.

Both Peters and Rice, for their part, are expected to vote to approve the final package on the House floor, having made their stand on behalf of Big Pharma in committee. So why did they make a show of voting against it there? The industry has flooded Peters with nearly $90,000 this year and has been steadily airing ads thanking him for his support in his district. Rice’s reasoning is a bit more obscure. Big Pharma has given her just over $6,000 in the same time frame, but the industry’s stakeholders are some of the New York Democrat’s biggest donors. An executive at Novo Nordisk’s largest shareholder, hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, and his relatives have collectively given Rice Victory Fund, a political action committee affiliated with the congresswoman, more than $100,000 in the past three election cycles. And, a former Nassau County prosecutor, Rice ran for New York attorney general in 2010 and heavily weighed a second bid in 2018 before bowing out. She’s considered a likely candidate the next time the position opens up, and given the higher ambitions of Attorney General Letitia James, that might not be long.

The Budget Committee, whose members will be the ultimate writers of the reconciliation bill that makes it to the House floor, is generally more progressive than the more powerful committees like Ways and Means or Energy and Commerce. This is because of the structural corruption on which Washington’s political economy is built. It comes down to fundraising: The latter committees have jurisdiction over the economy’s major power centers, so those industries shower members of those committees with campaign donations. Like a host shaping itself synergistically with a parasite, members of Congress who are most eager for corporate contributions tend to fight for spots on the committees, and leadership tends to award them. The concentration of more corporate-friendly members on powerful committees means that less powerful committees — Budget; Education and Labor; Judiciary — wind up being stacked with progressives.

Under regular order, the power imbalance works out well for corporate lobbyists. But a reconciliation process empowers the Budget Committee, making it a less effective defense against the landmark piece of legislation.

Peters sits on the Budget Committee, where he can again register his objection. But this objection will likely be harmless, because the rest of the committee — which is chaired by Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky and includes progressives such as Barbara Lee of California, Pramila Jayapal of Washington, and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois — is broadly supportive of the drug-pricing effort. One member who does have a centrist voting record, Jim Cooper of Tennessee, is facing a serious primary challenge from the left back in his district. The threat ought to help keep him on board.

The rising importance of the typically obscure panel was underscored this weekend when Yarmuth was invited to appear on “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.” Yarmuth suggested that the floor vote for the final package would slip past the September 27 deadline and into early October, but he expressed little doubt that the prescription drug provision would make its way back in.

“I’m not sure there are very many in the Democratic caucus on either side of the building that actually are opposed to negotiation on prices of prescription drugs, I just think it’s the methodology used,” Yarmuth said, adding that his committee would pull from other proposals being kicked around in other House committees and in the Senate.

The Senate, however, brings in another complication to the process. Many House Democrats are loath to vote on a large tax-and-spending bill that then dies in the Senate, creating pressure for what’s known as “pre-conferencing”: effectively a deal between the two chambers that is arrived at before the conference committee where they meet. Because of this, holdouts like Sinema and Manchin may actually have more influence over the Budget Committee and a potential manager’s amendment than any of the House members we heard from last week.

There are just days to go until the self-imposed infrastructure deadline and a possible government shutdown, and weeks from default if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling. Because the bicameral, multicommittee process is one of the party’s only shots to enact its agenda without grappling with the filibuster, everything is getting thrown into it — including immigration and labor reform. That structure is now reaching a breaking point. Over the weekend, the Senate parliamentarian, a staffer who serves in an advisory role that Democrats treat like a magistrate, warned that their version of immigration reform ran afoul of reconciliation rules. Democrats are able to move forward against her guidance if they wish but would again need buy-in from Manchin and Sinema to do so. Something’s gotta give.

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