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Disarray, cont'd: House Dems punt reconciliation package ... again

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

“President Biden and congressional leaders are forging ahead,” Axios reported last night, on Joe Biden’s reconciliation package. Except … they’re not forging at all, as it turns out. No one has any clue as to what the final form of the bill will actually be, and Biden’s last-minute proposal for his “Build Back Better” (BBB) bill still has notable omissions as well as components that directly conflict with some Democrats’ publicly drawn red lines.

Rather than “forging ahead” with all of this ambiguity, House Democrats instead punted on the process — again. They retreated from their Tuesday deadline and derailed the expected kick-start in the House Rules Committee:

Why it matters: For all their bluster, Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have failed twice to hold promised votes on the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which would pave the way for a $1.75 trillion social safety net expansion package. Missing a third vote is a major risk for them both, writes Axios’ Hans Nichols.

The delays have undermined Pelosi, who famously never holds — or schedules — a vote she can’t win.

Driving the news: House leaders gave themselves more time this afternoon by punting procedural moves they’d planned for tomorrow by the House Rules Committee.

That would have set up floor votes on the actual bills as early as Tuesday.

That’s a big red flag about prospects for “forging ahead.” In the wake of Biden’s speech Thursday, Nancy Pelosi tried hard — harder than Biden did — to get her caucus to come together for a vote on infrastructure. When that failed, Pelosi then tried to fast-track Biden’s BBB proposal for the House. Unfortunately, Pelosi ran into the problem that the White House has had all along, which is that Biden didn’t really do any of the grunt work in putting the proposal together.

A smarter president — or basically any president other than Biden — would have sat down and negotiated this out between the opponents within the Senate Democrat caucus. Instead of getting Bernie Sanders, Joe Manchin, and Kyrsten Sinema in the same room, Biden instead drafted BBB as though handing it down on tablets from the Mount. No one other than Biden had any reason to move off of their positions except to the extent that the entire fight is clearly damaging their standing with voters, but even that wasn’t enough for progressives to agree to a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

That leaves everyone exactly in the same place as before, Punchbowl News reports. The BBB remains a “moving target,” which means that there’s no way to pin down an agreement in text yet:

Democrats are still working on their reconciliation bill and they don’t know when it’s going to be done. They can’t get the process started today in the House as the leadership would’ve liked, so they’ll get back to us when they can start. There’s a huge push to get this done by the end of the week. The odds of that happening right now are improving, but far from certain.

Here’s the bottom line: The reconciliation bill is still, on Nov. 1, very much a moving target.

Besides the prescription drug pricing issue, there is still discussion over Medicare expansion, a key priority for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Sanders and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) were negotiating on the issue throughout the weekend.

So the biggest (and by far not the only) contradiction hasn’t yet been resolved. What is there to negotiate? Sanders wants Medicare expanded, and Manchin adamantly opposes expansion. I don’t think that a moderate expansion is what Manchin has in mind for a compromise. One of them will have to capitulate, and that’s something Biden should have accomplished prior to dropping the BBB from Olympus on his way to Europe.

And Democrats wanted to start writing rules for debate on the bill for a Tuesday introduction? I know we can’t know what’s in a bill until it passes, as Pelosi once famously advised, but come on, man.

That’s not the only moving part that’s destined to derail the effort. Punchbowl reports that Biden and progressives want to stick immigration policy back into the mix, even though the Senate parliamentarian has twice ruled it out of order for reconciliation. The plan is now — wait for it — to punish House Democrats for voting for amnesty as a price for passing the BBB:

Immigration remains unresolved as well. This is a topic that’s not getting nearly enough attention. Three House Democrats — Reps. Chuy Garcia (Ill.), Lou Correa (Calif.) and Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.) — have vowed to oppose both the reconciliation package and the bipartisan infrastructure bill unless immigration-related provisions — including a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, TPS holders and other groups — is added to the Build Back Better Act. The problem, of course, is that the Senate parliamentarian has already ruled those out on two occasions. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) have been working on a “Plan C” for the parliamentarian, but it’s unclear when that ruling could be issued.

Democratic leaders could try to add the immigration provisions to the House version of the reconciliation package and then let it get stripped out on the Senate side, but that could make moderates — who are already getting hit by Republicans over the problems at the U.S.-Mexico border — face a politically tough vote. Democrats have a problem here that needs a resolution.

That’s a brilliant strategy … if you’re Kevin McCarthy. It’s usually his job to force House Democrats to take votes on unpopular policies that are ultimately futile. (Mitch McConnell has a good track record in the Senate on that same task.)  Do Democrats want to lose seats in the midterms? There is no good reason for forcing your caucus to cast futile and unpopular votes, not even to rescue an unpopular and incompetent president from his own folly.

Perhaps Nancy Pelosi really does plan on honoring her promise to retire at the end of this session of Congress. If she pushes ahead with these ideas, she’s assured of a minority in 2023 and no reason to stick around. That’s one way to get out of another contentious leadership fight.

Biden’s BBB isn’t going anywhere in either chamber until Manchin and Sinema give the OK. And even then, it’s going to take a long time to do anything with it as long as Democrats play stupid chamber games with the text, as Texas Republican John Cornyn explains:

To be honest, it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere in the first place. With the polls showing new red flags on both the BBB and BIF, it may well fade away after tomorrow’s election in Virginia.