Where Does Democrats’ Build Back Better Bill Go From Here?

·5 min read
Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

President Joe Biden said Wednesday that Democrats will “probably” have to break up their package of social spending, climate programs and tax changes.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said Thursday that his party would have to start “from scratch” in trying to draft a bill that can pass.

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) reminded reporters at her weekly press conference that the Democratic strategy was to pass the legislation via the special budget reconciliation process, which would allow them to bypass the threat of a Republican filibuster but comes with very specific requirements. “So when people say let's divide it up – nah. No, they don't understand the process,” Pelosi said.

That all leaves the future of the plan very much up in the air.

Politico’s Burgess Everett and Marianne LeVine report that, while Democrats hope to revive their domestic agenda, including both the domestic spending plan and their election reform push, both items are likely to take a back seat to other, more bipartisan efforts. “There’s little appetite in the Democratic majority to publicly fall short on high-profile priorities so soon after the party’s failures to both weaken the filibuster to pass election reform and to approve President Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion social spending bill,” they write. “Instead, many Democrats are itching to get back to voting on bills that have plenty of GOP support, such as a new deal to fund the government or changing antitrust laws.”

Everett and Levine note that lawmakers aren’t unified behind that approach, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) pushing to force votes on the Build Back Better bill, even if they fail, in order to get Republicans — and Democratic holdout Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) — to put their opposition on the record. “We’ve been negotiating with two senators for five months and it has gotten us nowhere, so we need a new course of action. And I think what we have got to do now is to make it clear where 48 of us stand,” Sanders said. “Right now, we are playing into Republicans’ hands by not having them vote against anything.”

Prioritizing the long-delayed annual spending bill: Despite such demands, Pelosi followed up Friday with a Dear Colleague letter that indicated that the Build Back Better bill will have to wait as party leaders look to put some point on the board and deal with a February 18 deadline to fund the government.

Pelosi listed a number of “important initiatives ahead,” with passing an omnibus budget bill at the top of the list followed by a competitiveness bill targeting China, legislation relating to Ukraine and Russia and a bill to provide care for veterans exposed to toxic substances in burn pits. She said House Democrats would “continue to advance the provisions of the Build Back Better Act,” but it seems clear that the bipartisan talks to reach a deal on a spending bill and finish the long-delayed annual appropriations process will take priority for the moment.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said Thursday that negotiations on the spending are “getting much closer to something that both the House and the Senate could agree on,” per Politico.

Options for the next version of Build Back Better: Whenever Democrats get back to their domestic spending plan, they would face some significant challenges if they do look to break it into “big chunks,” as Biden suggested Wednesday.

Roll Call’s Paul M. Krawzak offers a thorough rundown of the options Democrats would have to split up their plan, with a warning: “All of them pose complications for Democrats and the White House in one form or another, which will make it difficult for the party leadership to get another shot before the November midterms.”

Some possible paths:

1. Democrats could look to pass separate reconciliation bills covering various elements of their plan, but Krawzak says they’d need to convince the Senate parliamentarian “to cast aside precedent and allow the existing budget instructions to be used for more than one bill.”

2. They could revise their 2022 budget resolution, which included the original instructions for the reconciliation package, to provide a new set of instructions and open up more options for their reconciliation bill or bills. One potential pitfall: Any such amendment would likely have to go through the normal Senate Budget Committee markup process, meaning that Republicans might be able to block the changes, or at least force another “vote-a-rama” packed with politically sensitive votes.

3. Democrats could move ahead to a new budget resolution for fiscal year 2023. “Of course,” Krawzak says, “there’s no guarantee such an approach would win the needed votes from Manchin or Sinema. Nor is it clear that the Senate Democratic caucus as a whole has appetite for two more vote-a-ramas, which would be required, for the budget resolution and reconciliation bill, so close to the midterms with their thinnest-possible majority hanging in the balance.”

4. Democrats could try to come up with a fiscal 2022 reconciliation bill that includes only the elements that can pass both the House and Senate, leaving the rest for later — and hoping that they can reach deals with Republicans on at least some of those other agenda items.

The bottom line: “If we can pass bills at 60, we’ll do that,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) told Politico. “If we can pass bills with 51, we’ll also do that. The question is what has the votes necessary for enactment and that will be a criteria.”

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