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The Crucial Decision Democrats Have to Make Now

Slate logo Slate 10/13/2021 Jim Newell
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was for doing fewer things well, before she was against it. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images © Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was for doing fewer things well, before she was against it. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

While it may be wholly undetectable to the naked eye, Democrats have made a modicum of progress on their signature Build Back Better Act, the all-purpose, party-line megabill for enacting new social spending programs and keeping the planet semi-habitable. That small bit of progress is recognizing that there is not going to be any “$3.5 trillion bill,” as it’s so often described in shorthand. Instead, to cater to small factions of moderate and conservative Democrats in the House and Senate, the target is now more like $2 trillion.

Where Democrats are now stuck, though, is figuring out how to cut the bill to nearly half its proposed cost. There are two basic approaches. The most straightforward is to drop a bunch of proposals from the bill. The other is to seed as many of the proposals as possible, for a shorter duration, and gamble that they’ll be renewed later on.

As ever, progressives and moderates have different preferences, are becoming deeply entrenched in their preferences, and will not easily suffer the other faction prevailing. Same show, new season.

But with a new season comes a new character: the New Democrat Coalition. Sandwiched between the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Blue Dogs, the 95-member caucus is, according to its own description, “a solutions-oriented coalition seeking to bridge the gap between left and right by challenging outmoded partisan approaches to governing.” Its members are “committed to pro-economic growth, pro-innovation, and fiscally responsible policies,” and they “believe the challenges ahead are too great for Members of Congress to refuse to cooperate purely out of partisanship.” Just put on a Patagonia vest, stroke your chin a few times, and throw a few vanilla buzzwords into a Mad Libs template, and you’ll have a sentence that the New Dems can put on their “About Us” page. They’re center-left Democrats who like business but mostly do what Nancy Pelosi tells them to do.

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When it comes to the big bill, the New Dems have been advocating for months  “to do a few things well, for longer.” In other words, to trim the scope of the bill. A list of priorities they released over the summer has become a sort of consensus for the pillars of the “fewer thing well” school: Making permanent fixes to the Affordable Care Act and the expanded Child Tax Credit, addressing climate change, and seeing what’s left. (My colleague Jordan Weissmann has some ideas, too.) Trimming the bill this way would allow Democrats to make longer-term investments on their top priorities, and it would also make the bill easier to explain.

Pelosi appeared to side with this approach earlier this week. “Overwhelmingly,” she wrote in a Monday night letter to House Democrats, “the guidance I am receiving from Members is to do fewer things well so that we can still have a transformative impact on families in the workplace and responsibly address the climate crisis: a Build Back Better agenda for jobs and the planet For The Children!”

The Congressional Progressive Caucus, confident after staring down a faction of House moderates late last month, and their progressive Senate allies beg to differ. They emphasize that everything in the $3.5 trillion vision was included because it was vital to a certain community, and that it wasn’t simply a “wish list.” Breaking down the bill means breaking down the coalition in support of it.

“We are not going to pit child care against climate change,” the CPC chair, Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, told reporters Tuesday. “We’re not going to pit housing against paid leave. We’re not going to pit seniors against young people. The reality is these are transformational programs that different parts of our communities desperately need.”

What would be on the chopping block if Democrats focused on a few core items? Well, consider the way West Virginia Joe Manchin has reportedly put it: Between the Child Tax Credit, paid family and medical leave, and child care, Democrats need to pick one. It would almost certainly require nixing an expansion of Medicare to cover dental, hearing, and vision benefits. That’s a problem for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who views that provision as something of a legacy item in his career-long pursuit of expanding public health care.

“There really is something fundamentally wrong when, in the richest country in the history of the world, there are millions of seniors who have rotting teeth in their mouths, or are unable to hear what their grandchildren are saying,” Sanders told reporters Tuesday. “The truth of the matter is these provisions should have been included in the original Medicare bill, they were not, and the time is now, 50 years later, for us to include it.

“This, to me, is not negotiable.”

In order to fit $3.5 trillion worth of spending into a $2 trillion box, progressives recommend immediately implementing all of these programs but “sunsetting” them—allowing them to expire—after a shorter number of years, so they appear to cost less over ten years. It is not that progressives actually want these programs to expire, though. Instead, they’re resorting to the use of “cliffs” as, essentially, a budget gimmick.

The idea is that once popular benefits have been introduced, it would be difficult for the governing party to allow them to disappear overnight. They would be renewed in some form or fashion. This is a bipartisan trick: The George W. Bush tax cuts were designed to sunset after ten years, and were mostly renewed—except at the top end—under Barack Obama. The Republican tax cut bill in 2017, meanwhile, scheduled all of the individual tax cuts to expire at the end of 2025. That way, Republicans had enough budget space to make all of their business tax cuts permanent, and pretty good historical precedent to believe that most of the individual tax cuts would be renewed later on.

One issue with setting up “cliffs” is that Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, and other conservative Democrats, are wise to the idea that this is a budget gimmick disguising the true cost of programs, and won’t want to go along with it. But it’s also an enormous risk to enact so much of your vision for a new social contract on a few-years’ basis and bet that Republicans, likely to return to power in at least one chamber of Congress, wouldn’t allow many of these programs that they hate to expire. Have you met a House Republican? Have you heard Mitch McConnell speak words before?

Still, Pelosi’s position, as announced in her Monday night letter, that Democrats should take the “fewer things well” approach lasted about 12 hours. In a Tuesday morning press conference, Pelosi appeared to favor the progressives’ approach of fiddling with timelines. When asked what would be the first thing to go to bring down the cost of the bill, Pelosi said that “the timing would be reduced in many cases to make the cost lower.”

In other words, no one has decided on anything.

What’s the likely outcome here? Who’s going to prevail: Team Fewer Things or Team Tinker Around With Timing? We’d guess that, after some brutal negotiations… it’s a mix of both. A couple of core items are structured to be permanent, and then a couple of other items are set up for a few years with the hope they’ll be renewed. This is because Democrats need to find a way to satisfy both groups, or else all of these ideas will expire before they’re ever implemented.


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