Opinion | Failure on Biden’s Reconcilation Bill Is Very Much an Option

Joe Biden’s domestic agenda at the moment is, like his presidency, in peril.

It is caught between the Scylla of progressives insisting the bipartisan infrastructure bill can’t pass the House before the reconciliation bill passes the Senate and the Charybdis of moderates insisting the bipartisan infrastructure bill must pass the House before anything else happens.

It is, to switch metaphors, a standoff out of an old Western, with the intervention that will lead to all factions holstering their weapons not yet evident.

Still, the conventional wisdom is that Democrats will get both bills in the end. They will stare into the abyss, recognize the partywide debacle that would ensue if they pass nothing, and agree, somehow or other, on the infrastructure bill and a reduced reconciliation bill.

It’s certainly true that, whatever the intervening drama, must-pass spending bills always pass. (There are very occasionally government shutdowns, which are only temporary pauses until the bills pass anyway.) But the possibility of a complete meltdown over the Biden spending bill shouldn’t be underestimated.

The reconciliation bill isn’t too big to fail, but big enough potentially to fail spectacularly. It has the hallmarks of other signature presidential initiatives that, despite huge investments of presidential political capital, have gone down at the hands of a president’s own party.

In an unimaginable defeat at the time, Bill Clinton couldn’t get his health care bill through Congress, despite a roughly 80-seat House majority and 56 or 57 senators.

After his reelection in 2004, George W. Bush’s Social Security reform fizzled in a Republican Congress.

Out of the gate, Donald Trump suffered an embarrassing defeat on Obamacare repeal in 2017.

So, no, victory isn’t inevitable, no matter how much Biden needs his bills.

It is a well-established axiom that delay, which characterized the Clinton health care debate, is a killer. Momentum is lost. Entropy takes a hand. Presidents don’t tend to get more popular after an election, and if a delay pushes a fight into a midterm-election year, members of his own party are likelier to conclude they need to go their own way to protect their interests.

This is why Sen. Joe Manchin’s talk of putting off consideration of the reconciliation bill until 2022 is itself an existential threat to its prospects.

It’s always a warning sign when a specific, partywide electoral mandate hasn’t been built for an agenda.

Clinton didn’t set out in any detail his ambitions on health care during the 1992 campaign, which were instead cooked up by a health care task force after his election.

Bush hardly campaigned on Social Security reform, and never had his congressional party on board.

Trump had no idea, and neither did the rest of the party, about what would replace Obamacare.

Biden did lay out out his agenda last year and it was clearly very ambitious, but he never made it front and center in the campaign. He didn’t stump every day on $6 trillion in new spending. Instead, he presented himself as the anti-Trump who would bring the country together, cut bipartisan deals in Congress and defeat the virus.

Obviously the size of congressional majorities matters. Clinton and Bush couldn’t work their will despite healthy numbers, whereas Trump had a very slender majority in the Senate, opening the way for John McCain’s famous thumbs-down.

Biden technically doesn’t even have a Senate majority, hence the power invested in Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema’s thumbs.

This gets to what sets Biden apart from all of his predecessors — the massive disconnect between the scale of the legislation he seeks and the narrow majorities that are supposed to pass it.

The amount of spending in reconciliation is greater than Barack Obama’s stimulus in 2009, which Democrats passed when they had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

There’s more new health care spending than in Obamacare, which, again, passed the Senate when Democrats had 60 (then 59) votes.

There’s a hunt for villains among progressive commentators as the Biden agenda encounters turbulence. There really shouldn’t be any mystery here, though. A president who has an approval rating in the mid-40s, a tie in the Senate and single-digit majority in the House is having difficulties passing the most sweepingly ambitious progressive agenda in decades.

What else would anyone expect?

The Democrats’ factions are empowered to make their conflicting demands because the margins are so small.

The bill is so huge, encompassing everything from climate to perhaps immigration, also because the margins are so small. (To avoid the filibuster, everything has to be in reconciliation instead of broken up and passed piecemeal in lower-stakes fights.)

Given the real risks of failure, it would make sense for Democrats to pass the infrastructure bill and pocket that success, then move on to reconciliation, realizing one way or the other that it is going to be slimmed down.

But that’s not the mood right now.

As Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute has pointed out, the process of a bill passing and a bill failing in Congress is often indistinguishable, so in the coming weeks it will be difficult to tell whether Democrats are, messily and haltingly, getting to “yes,” or stumbling into a box canyon.

But history says they should be afraid, very afraid.

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