Think of the upcoming week as prelude to the big action: With both chambers of Congress now back in session, Democrats are getting ready for high-stakes votes on infrastructure and all Biden’s other domestic priorities. The window of opportunity is open — but it will shut remarkably quickly.
You may be surprised to hear that the $3.5 trillion social policy legislation (or whatever you want to call it -- Build Back Better, the reconciliation bill, Biden’s big bill — ugh, the Democrats’ messaging on this has been awful) is now fully drafted in the House. You haven’t heard the details because the work has occurred in the House’s 13 legislative committees, Republicans haven’t participated, there haven’t been hearings, and the media has held back from reporting because it’s still early in the game and many editors and producers have a deeply-held aversion to policy wonkery.
Now come marathon negotiations with the White House and the Senate, decisions from the Senate parliamentarian on whether or how much of the bill complies with the rules on reconciliation (so there will be no filibuster), amendments in the Senate (put on your seatbelts), ending with votes on final passage in both chambers.
The next three weeks are crucial. After that, the window of opportunity begins to close. By the time the Senate returns from Columbus (Indigenous Peoples’) Day weekend on October 12, Senate Democrats will likely face a showdown with Senate Republicans over lifting the debt ceiling so the United States can pay its bills (especially the trillions of dollars of run up during the Trump administration). Then Biden goes to Scotland for a global climate summit – where, not incidentally, the U.S. would be in a far stronger position if Congress has already passed groundbreaking climate action at home. Not long after that – just twelve weeks from now -- Congress is scheduled to leave for Christmas and New Year's. Then we're in the midterm election year when the window will close almost entirely.
I have a rather traumatic memory from the first two years of Bill Clinton’s first term. It was also a time when Democrats held the House and Senate. Clinton spent almost all his political capital on his (and Hillary’s) healthcare proposal — which also came to a high-stakes all-or-nothing vote. Its failure was such a political blow that it led to the Republicans taking back both chambers in the midterms of 1994, with Newt Gingrich becoming Speaker of the House (and being crowned the reigning head of Washington power politics). Everything I had hoped we’d accomplish seemed to go down the drain. And Gingrich marked the start of a particularly angry, divisive Republican Party.
That’s not to say Biden’s upcoming Hail Mary is wrong, tactically. It’s just a huge gamble. Biden has packed almost his entire agenda into a single piece of legislation — jobs, care, paid leave, children, education, health, climate, and labor law reform, along with higher taxes on the wealthy and big corporations to pay for it. Add the infrastructure bill, which Speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised will be voted on at the same time in the House, and the stakes couldn’t be higher: an up-or-down-on-everything that will define Biden’s presidency and America for years to come. If Biden wins, he’ll deliver on a decades-long campaign by Democrats and progressives to reverse inequality and spread the gains of a growing economy, reversing the Ronald Reagan view of government that has shaped American politics for forty years (and also delivered near-stagnant wages for most Americans and a bonanza for the super-rich). But if Biden fails, it won’t just be his agenda that fails. America could continue its vicious cycle of ever-growing wealth and power at the top — power that’s able to rig the rules of the political-economic game against almost everyone else.
If this were merely a matter of popularity, there’d be no issue. Overall, voters support Biden’s plan by a +32-point margin, including Independents by a +25-point margin and more than a third of Republicans. Polling in 12 critical states found overwhelming support — including its tax provisions aiming at big corporations and the wealthy. 59% of voters say Congress should either spend more on the legislation or keep the amount of spending at its current proposed level.
But this is not about popularity. It’s about power — which also involves voting rights (another set of battles, up soon), racism, and the dark, continuing reality of Trumpism. In short, it’s about the future of America.