On Wednesday night, Joe Biden stopped by the congressional baseball game, an annual event where politicians from both parties supposedly put partisan differences aside and take to the field to play America’s beloved national pastime.
While the president was all smiles as he handed out White House-branded ice cream bars, there were reminders everywhere of the gravity of the challenges facing his administration this week – challenges that could derail his entire presidency.
Republican fans in the stadium booed loudly when Biden’s entrance was announced over the stadium loudspeaker. In fact, the majority of Republican players on the field had voted against certifying his presidential victory.
Liberal activists unfurled a sign in one corner of the stadium calling for trillions of dollars in new government social spending and another urging Democrats not to screw this up (although they opted for more colourful phrasing).
Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi sat in the first row of the stands, her ear pressed against a cell phone, clearly more concerned with political strategy than the game on the field.
Pelosi understands, perhaps more than anyone else in the stadium, what is at stake for her party this week.
Here’s a look at the issues they’re fighting over, as well as the key players and factions who will determine who wins.
The infrastructure bill
The $1 trillion (£750 billion) Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, or “Bif,” as it’s colloquially known, passed the US Senate last month and has been awaiting action in the House of Representatives – its final stop before reaching the president’s desk – since then. The bill would provide funding for roads, bridges, broadband internet, lead-pipe replacement, electric car charging stations, and a variety of other physical infrastructure projects.
The ‘reconciliation’ bill
If the infrastructure bill is the current embodiment of bipartisanship, the reconciliation bill – which, due to parliamentary machinations, only requires Democratic support – is the opportunity for the party to demonstrate that it can use its congressional majorities to enact its major policy priorities.
The legislation, which is still being drafted in both the House and Senate, includes a wide range of social programmes, such as early childhood education, universal preschool, government-funded two-year college education, paid family and medical leave, expanded government health insurance, environmental spending, and tax increases on corporations and the wealthy to pay for it.
The debt limit
The national debt limit, which the federal government will reach sometime in mid to late October, looms over both of these legislative priorities. If the US Treasury wants to issue new bonds to pay for all of this proposed new spending, as well as spending authorised in recent years, Congress will have to increase that limit by trillions of dollars.
If it does not, the United States will default, an unprecedented development that could devastate not only the American economy but the entire global economy.
The players – and their goals:
The liberals in Congress have long memories.
They recall the Obama years, when they felt they were being pushed to the sidelines by their party’s centrists, as their legislative priorities, such as economic stimulus, government-run healthcare, financial reform, and environmental regulations, were watered down to the point of ineffectiveness.
It was going to be different this time. Despite having the smallest of majorities in the House and Senate, the liberals (or progressives, as they prefer to be called) pledged to hold off on supporting the bipartisan infrastructure bill until their legislative priorities – a reconciliation bill of at least $3.5 trillion – were approved.
The problem with threatening to shoot the hostage is that you must be ready to pull the trigger. And there is plenty in the infrastructure bill that progressives like, such as green-energy investments.
Bernie Sanders of Vermont, in the Senate, and Pramila Jayapal of Washington, in the House, are key figures in the progressive camp. The latter has repeatedly stated that she has the votes among her colleagues, including other members of “the Squad” such as Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar, to kill the infrastructure bill.
At the time, their threat appeared credible enough for Speaker Pelosi to cancel a scheduled vote on the legislation on Thursday in order to buy more time for negotiations.
Where the progressives go from here, however, remains to be seen.
The reconciliation bill has divided Democratic centrists in both chambers of Congress. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has said that the $3.5 trillion price tag is too high – and reckless – and that his top line is $1.5 trillion, with limited environmental regulations and means-tested social programmes.
Manchin supports repealing Trump-era tax cuts, but he believes that some of the new revenue must go toward reducing the federal budget deficit.
Centrists are focused on passing the infrastructure bill, which they see as not only a necessary investment but also proof that their brand of deal-making and bipartisanship can work.
The House’s centrists forced Pelosi to schedule the Thursday infrastructure vote in order to gain their support for an early procedural step on the social-spending bill.
Manchin reiterated his position – as well as his centrist views – on Thursday afternoon, saying that if Democrats wanted liberal legislation, they should work to elect more liberals.
In a 50-50 Senate, he and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, another key Democratic centrist, have the upper hand.
Biden and Pelosi
The party’s two top leaders, Speaker Pelosi and President Biden, are caught in the middle of a centrist-progressive Democratic tug of war.
Pelosi, lauded by the left for her strategic acumen, has been working hard to keep her Democratic House majority in check. She has stated that the reconciliation bill will “certainly happen,” and she sees it as the “culmination” of a congressional career that began in the late 1980s.
On the other hand, she promised centrists a vote on the infrastructure bill, and the longer that vote takes, the more difficult it will be to manage their rage.
Biden, or at least his administration officials, appear to be fine with progressive efforts to pressure centrists into supporting a large-ticket reconciliation bill. They’re not urging liberals to support infrastructure legislation, despite the fact that Biden celebrated alongside centrists when it passed the Senate.
When asked about the timeline for passage of either bill at the White House on Wednesday, press secretary Jen Psaki leftned her remarks with a healthy dose of “stay tuned” and “we’ll see.”
“Our goal is to win two votes and get two pieces of legislation across the finish line,” she said. And what about the timing?
Congressional Republicans aren’t content to sit back, eat popcorn, and watch Democrats twist themselves into knots in the same way their party did when President Trump had congressional majorities.
They are actively putting roadblocks in the way of the Democrats.
The most serious is their refusal to raise the debt ceiling, despite the fact that a government debt default would be both disastrous and unprecedented.
They insist that because Democrats are currently in power, they should be the ones to vote to raise the limit, using the same reconciliation procedure that they are using for their large social spending proposal.
This would add layers of complication to the Democrats’ already crowded legislative calendar, necessitating multiple votes in both the House and Senate, with numerous new opportunities for things to go wrong (with Republican help, naturally).
More than a few Republicans voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill in the Senate, and they – as well as conservative business groups – are still eager for it to pass. But what if they can pass the bill while splintering the Democratic Party, torching the prospect of trillions of dollars in new liberal policies, and providing fodder for 2022 midterm campaign advertisements?
That’s just gravy.