Brinksmanship theater in Congress

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Over the past 45 years, we have experienced 20 government shutdowns. No one likes them. So, it wasn’t at all surprising that the most recent threat was “averted” last week with congressional passage of a short-term spending bill. But the predictable end to what was essentially political posturing and bluster by leading politicians in both parties reinforces concern that leadership is more focused on political gamesmanship than the best interests of the American people.

Government funding is one of four economic components being debated in the halls of Congress between Democrats and Republicans, and between moderates and progressives in the Democratic Party. And there is a lot riding on it — including the possible future of President Biden’s domestic policy agenda.

The second issue — raising the debt ceiling — is, like funding the government, a necessary step, even if distasteful. Noise being made about the evils of raising the debt ceiling is largely political theater, as everyone understands that the price of U.S. debt default would be far higher than the cost of the debt itself. Congress has no choice but to raise the debt ceiling.

It is the third and fourth components of the economic debate that present the real challenge. The third is the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill for roads, bridges, rail, broadband and water that is popular with just about everyone. It passed the Senate and is waiting in the House, where Biden and the Democrats want to leverage the popularity of that bill to force passage of the fourth component, a $3.5 trillion social policy reconciliation package that includes climate, childcare, education and other social spending.

Progressive Democrats insist on voting on the two bills together, for fear that the social programs will be left behind if a separate vote is taken. Moderate Democrats want to make sure that at least the infrastructure bill becomes law. And in a Senate that’s split 50-50, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) oppose the $3.5 trillion price tag, dooming passage of the bill in its current form.

Manchin has indicated that he would support $1.5 trillion in additional social spending, which is insufficient for progressives. Sinema, meanwhile, opposes raising taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals, which Democrats had hoped would pay for the bill’s broad spending.

This legislative jigsaw puzzle seems custom made for the historical glad handing, gentle persuasion and realpolitik compromise of Joe Biden. But he is struggling with his left flank, and risks running out the clock of opportunity for his party’s razor-thin majority in Congress.

The answers are simple: Pay for the government. Raise the debt ceiling. Take “yes” for an answer on the infrastructure bill. And begin negotiating in earnest on the $3.5 trillion package.

If Democrats want to further their social policy agenda they are going to have to find room for compromise. Grandstanding and posturing will get them nowhere. It is time for the party’s adult leadership to take control.

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