9 min read

Wake Up To Politics - September 9, 2021

Wake Up To Politics: Five questions on the Democratic spending plan
Wake Up To Politics - September 9, 2021

Good morning! It’s Thursday, September 9, 2021. Election Day 2022 is 425 days away. Election Day 2024 is 1,153 days away.

Five questions as Democrats craft their spending plan

Washington is abuzz with questions right now about the massive Democratic spending plan.

Almost every interest group and left-of-center lawmaker has something at stake in the package, which the New York Times described this week as a “cradle-to-grave” rethinking of America’s social safety net.

After weeks of buildup, Democrats will begin to hash out the details of the legislation today in a succession of House committee meetings. There are 12 committees in the Senate and 13 in the House with jurisdiction over some portion of the package; the panels will start meeting today to craft their pieces of the pie and are hoping to be done drafting by September 15.

As that legislative process kicks off, here are five of the top questions you should watch for:

1. How big will the package be? This is the trillion-dollar question hanging over the spending negotiations. According to Axios, centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has privately warned his party’s leaders that he’s opening to supporting a $1.5 trillion package at the largest.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders have embraced a $3.5 trillion pricetag — and they don’t seem to be moving from it. “That $3.5 trillion is already the result of a major, major compromise and at the very least the bill should contain $3.5 trillion,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) told reporters on Wednesday. (Sanders had originally pushed for a $6 trillion package, before coming down to $3.5 trillion.)

Democrats are planning to use the one-party reconciliation process to advance the package. That means they have to find a pricetag that makes both Manchin and Sanders happy, because they need the support of all 50 Democrats in the Senate. The question is not just cosmetic: the difference between a $1 trillion package and a $3.5 trillion one is the difference between whether or not several of President Joe Biden’s top priorities get funded, from expanding public education and child care to offering tax credits to support elder care.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders says a $3.5 trillion package is a compromise. (Photo by the Brookings Institution)

2. What will Democrats do about health care? One of the main sticking points Democrats are still hashing out is which health care program to prioritize in the spending plan: Obamacare or Medicare.

Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) are pushing to strengthen Obamacare by extending enhanced subsidies to offer assistance for low-income Americans struggling to pay their premiums and by expanding Medicaid in the 12 GOP-led states that have yet to do so.

Meanwhile, Sanders and others are pushing for Medicare to be expanded to cover dental, hearing, and vision. Depending on the size of the package, Democrats might not be able to do both. That’s led to a squabble between lawmakers, which has been fought over both the centrist-progressive axis (with moderates on Pelosi’s side and progressives behind Sanders) and the House-Senate axis (with Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer falling on opposite sides of the divide).  

3. How about tax increases? Democrats want their package to be fully paid-for. That’s going to require some serious tax increases, but the party is also having trouble deciding the specifics of who should have to pay more.

Among his suite of proposed tax increases for wealthy Americans, Biden has called for changes to the “stepped-up basis,” which allow heirs to sell off assets (property, stocks, etc.) inherited from a deceased family member without paying any tax. That proposal and others has been met with a fierce lobbying campaign in opposition, including from Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and other allies, raising questions about which changes to the tax code will end up in the final product.

Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp has emerged as a leading opponent of President Biden’s proposed tax changes. (Photo by Adam Schultz)

4. Will Democrats be able to include immigration reform? Here’s a question that could be answered as soon as this week. Immigration advocates view the forthcoming spending bill as their best opportunity to establish a pathway to legal status for “Dreamers” and other undocumented immigrants.

But reconciliation bills are subject to a specific rule – the “Byrd rule” — which requires that all of their provisions be revenue-related. It is up to Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough to rule whether or not immigration reform or other questionable provisions of the bill are in accordance with the “Byrd rule.”

You may recall that earlier this year, MacDonough ruled against Democrats when they sought to include a minimum wage increase in their coronavirus relief package passed through reconciliation. According to Politico, the legislative referee will hear arguments on Friday over whether Democrats can make immigration changes in their new spending bill before making her final decision.

5. And will they end up including a debt ceiling increase? Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen penned a letter to congressional leaders on Wednesday warning that the “extraordinary measures” currently being used to finance government expenditures will expire in October. That is the deadline for lawmakers to raise the debt ceiling, which caps how much money the government can borrow.

If the debt limit isn’t raised, the government would default on its debt, become largely unable to operate, and spark a financial crisis. However, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and other Republicans have threatened not to help Democrats raise the debt ceiling, saying if they are going to approve $3.5 trillion in new spending, they should be responsible for increasing the debt limit on their own.

So far, Democrats are refusing to raise the debt ceiling as part of their spending plan: “We won’t be putting it in reconciliation,” Pelosi said Wednesday. But because of the filibuster (which reconciliation bills are not subject to), they will otherwise need 60 votes in the Senate to raise it, which means finding Republican support for the notion that they currently do not have.

The Rundown

What else you need to know this morning.

Climate. “The Biden administration on Wednesday released a blueprint showing how the nation could move toward producing almost half of its electricity from the sun by 2050 — a potentially big step toward fighting climate change but one that would require vast upgrades to the electric grid.” New York Times

Afghanistan. “Roughly 200 Afghan dual nationals — including about 30 Americans — have been granted permission to leave the country Thursday, as the airport was declared repaired and ready for some commercial flights... Thursday’s flight out is the first such large-scale air departure of Afghans since a U.S. airlift concluded with the departure of foreign forces from Afghanistan just over a week ago.” Washington Post

White House. “White House officials have asked for the resignation of multiple members of the military academies’ advisory boards who were appointed by President Donald Trump in a move his supporters are blasting as a dangerous politicization of non-partisan advisory panels.” Military Times

The Biden administration wants 45% of the nation’s electricity to come from solar energy by 2050. (Photo by Kimco Realty)

Policy Roundup: Legal

On Thursday, Wake Up To Politics contributor Anna Salvatore writes in with the week’s top legal headlines:

In an unanimous decision on Monday, the Supreme Court of Mexico ruled that the Mexican government cannot ban abortions. The case arose when Coahuila, Mexico’s third-largest state, imposed prison sentences of up to three years for obtaining abortions. The Supreme Court of Mexico found this law unconstitutional, citing the burden that it placed on vulnerable women. Its ruling will apply to all other Mexican states, not just Coahuila.

  • According to the Wall Street Journal, the decision could lead to the release of over a hundred women incarcerated for receiving abortions. It will also contribute to growing pro-choice sentiment in Latin America, where Argentina joined Uruguay, Cuba, and Guyana this past December in legalizing abortion. That said, Mexicans should expect delays in abortion access until all states adapt their laws.

Days after Texas passed the nation’s most restrictive abortion law, Attorney General Merrick Garland said that he is considering “all options” to contest it in court. The new law — which the Supreme Court declined to block last weekend — prevents most women from obtaining abortions after six weeks, and it contains no exceptions for rape or incest. Most notoriously, it was written so that federal courts have almost no power to review its constitutionality. In a statement on Monday, Garland wrote that the Justice Department will also enforce a federal law that gives women safe access to abortion clinics. “We will not tolerate violence,” he continued, “against those seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services.”

  • Meanwhile in Texas, Republican Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill on Tuesday making it harder to vote in the state. According to the New York Times, the new law bans drive-through polling stations and 24-hour voting, measures that were popular this past year in Democratic-leaning Houston. The law will also restrict absentee voting, encourage partisan poll-watchers, and enact penalties for poll workers who don’t observe the rules. Several civil rights organizations have already sued Texas, claiming that the law violates the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has signed a series of controversial measures, from voting restrictions to abortion. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

The Supreme Court stayed the execution of a Texas inmate who had asked for a pastor in his death chamber. Prison officials had declined the man’s request, claiming that it wouldn’t be safe. He then sued, arguing that their policy violated his right to religious exercise at a time when “most Christians believe they will either ascend to heaven or descend to hell — in other words, when religious instruction and practice is most needed.” Though the Supreme Court will hear his case later in the fall, there is no guarantee it will rule in his favor. In 2019, the justices allowed a Muslim man to be executed without his imam.

More legal headlines, via Anna:

  • After more than a year of Zoom arguments, the Supreme Court will return to the courtroom next month. Audio streaming of oral arguments will continue.
  • On Wednesday, President Biden nominated three new judges for the 9th Circuit, one of whom would be the first Korean-American woman on a federal appeals court.
  • Robert F. Kennedy’s widow said this week that her husband’s assassin should not receive parole.
  • Six years after the Bataclan attacks in Paris, France is holding its largest-ever criminal trial for 20 suspected accomplices. “Security is tight, and hundreds of police officers were on hand on Wednesday,” reported the Washington Post.


What’s happening in Washington today. (All times Eastern)
Executive Branch
President Joe Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing at 10:30 a.m. He will deliver remarks at 5 p.m. to roll out a new six-pronged plan to combat the spread of the Delta variant and increase Covid-19 vaccinations.

Vice President Kamala Harris will deliver remarks at the U.S.-Mexico High Level Economic Dialogue (HLED) at 11 a.m. She will hold a meeting at 3:30 p.m, with abortion and reproductive health providers and patients from Texas, Mississippi, Kentucky, and New Mexico to discuss the new Texas abortion law and similar efforts across the country.    

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will hold her daily press briefing at 1 p.m.
Legislative Branch
The Senate will briefly convene at 1 p.m. for a pro forma session. The chamber will not fully return until September 13. The House is on recess until September 20.

The House Ways and Means, Natural Resources, Small Business, and Science, Space, and Technology Committees will each meet at 10 a.m. to begin putting together their portions of the Build Back Better Act, the sweeping spending package Democrats plan to pass through the reconciliation package. The House Education and Labor Committee will meet at 12 p.m. to do the same.
Judicial Branch
The Supreme Court is on recess until October 4.

Thanks for waking up to politics! If you enjoy reading this newsletter, I’d be so grateful if you’d consider donating to help support me and my work. If you want to show off your support for Wake Up To Politics, you can also buy some merchandise.

Also: don’t forget to tell your friends and family to sign up for the newsletter using your unique referral link. And if you have any questions or comments, feel free to email me at any time.