So much for the Bill Clinton strategy of political “triangulation.” Last week, President Biden’s attempts to balance a desire to appear bipartisan and the constant demands of Democrats’ far left made Biden look feeble, while angering conservative and leftist lawmakers alike.
Hours after announcing that his administration had blessed a bipartisan Senate framework for constructing an infrastructure package allegedly for roads and bridges, Biden demanded that Congress had to pass another, multi-trillion-dollar package expanding the welfare state as a precondition for him signing the bipartisan bill he had just said he supported. In remarks in the East Room, Biden said that “if only one [package] comes to me, I’m not—and if this [i.e., infrastructure] is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it. It’s in tandem.”
Within hours, Biden’s comments had converted the legislative process into a Mexican standoff. By Saturday, with the controversy continuing and Republican senators feeling double-crossed, the White House felt the need to put out another statement by the president that attempted to clean up his Thursday comments, but did not retract or apologize for them.
The remarks on Thursday represented a classic “Kinsley gaffe,” one in which a politician errs by revealing an obvious truth he didn’t mean to speak. In this case, Biden (a self-proclaimed “gaffe machine”) insisted he didn’t mean to say he would hold the desire of moderate Democratic and Republican senators for a bipartisan infrastructure spending bill hostage for the tax increases and trillions of dollars in new welfare spending demanded by the far left of his party. But by admitting that he wouldn’t sign such a package without a welfare explosion in an accompanying bill, that’s what he did.
The left has often attacked Republicans for hostage-taking in the legislative process—only for Biden to now come out and admit he will do the same thing. With the president having (inadvertently) made his motives plain, Republicans can remind the administration that, in a closely divided Washington, they have several leverage points of their own.
As noted several months ago, Democrats have a couple of options for increasing the federal debt limit, scheduled to return under current law on August 1. In theory, Democrats could pass an increase in the debt limit on a straight party-line vote as part of the budget reconciliation process.
But Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen last week demanded that Congress raise the debt limit by August 1—just a few short weeks away. And Democrats have yet to agree on a framework for passing a budget, let alone the details (including a potential debt limit increase) of any reconciliation bill that would follow that budget. Moreover, given their narrow margins in Congress, Democrats might not have the votes to pass a bill that rubber-stamped a multi-trillion-dollar increase in the nation’s debt without any reforms.
If Democrats cannot or will not use the budget reconciliation process to pass a debt limit increase, then overcoming a Senate filibuster will require the support of 10 Republicans in the upper chamber. Getting that Republican support likely would (and should) require some difficult discussions about the unsustainable nature of our current deficits and debt—a topic that concerns even Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia.
While Democrats could in theory pass a debt limit increase on a party-line basis, they have no similar option for the 12 appropriations bills that govern federal spending for the fiscal year that begins October 1. Absent a repeal of the legislative filibuster—a prospect Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, have both rejected—Democrats will need to gain the votes of 10 Republican senators to keep the federal government operating this fall. Hopefully this dynamic will cause Democrats to drop their insistence on taxpayer funding of abortion-on-demand, which the Biden administration proposed in its budget earlier this year.
This space noted even before Democrats embarked on their $1.9 trillion “COVID relief” bill that such a spending spree would automatically trigger spending reductions in Medicare and other programs in 2022. By passing their bill on a party-line basis, Democrats had to forego waiving requirements in the statutory pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) law. As a result, the bill’s massive increase in the deficit will trigger spending reductions under statutory PAYGO early next year, absent further legislative action.
As with the government spending bills, Democrats cannot make any changes to, or waivers of, statutory PAYGO via budget reconciliation. They must use the regular order process in the Senate, which would require at least 60 votes, and a minimum of 10 Republicans, to support any legislative fix.
Multiple Leverage Points
The bottom line: Despite their minority status in both chambers, Republicans have several opportunities to seek, and receive, input into the legislative process. President Biden last week showed himself unafraid to use his leverage points to demand that Congress pass all of his agenda. Republicans should remind the administration that they have leverage points too—and, if the need arises, should feel similarly unafraid to use them.