Baltimore Sun

Lawmakers barrel toward fall fights

Both parties rolling political dice on a number of issues

- By Alan Fram

WASHINGTON — Year-end pileups of crucial legislatio­n and the brinkmansh­ip that goes with them are normal behavior for Congress. This autumn, lawmakers are barreling toward battles that are striking for the risks they pose to both parties.

Though few doubt that Congress will again extend the government’s borrowing authority when it expires in December, no one seems certain of how they’ll do it . Democrats don’t have the votes yet to enact President Joe Biden’s top priorities into law. And Republican­s are nervous that Democrats may weaken the filibuster rule that lets the Senate’s minority party derail legislatio­n.

Miscalcula­te and there could be a calamitous federal default, a collapse of Biden’s domestic agenda and, for good measure, a damaging government shutdown. Stir in lawmakers whose nerves are already frayed and are looking to tee up issues for next year’s midterm elections, and it’s a recipe for confrontat­ions that could damage each party if leaders aren’t careful.

Here are gambles each side faces:

Debt limit: Senate Minority Leader Mitch

McConnell, R-Ky., blinked last week. And then he said he wouldn’t blink again.

McConnell said since summer that Republican­s wouldn’t supply the votes majority Democrats needed to extend the federal debt limit. But Thursday night, 11 Republican­s, including McConnell, joined Democrats in narrowly overcoming a procedural hurdle so the Senate could subsequent­ly approve $480 billion in fresh borrowing.

House passage, expected Tuesday, would stave off until December a first-ever federal default that could disrupt the global economy, delay government checks to Social Security recipients and others, and unleash voters’ wrath on lawmakers.

But the partisan dispute will resume in two months.

Republican­s want Democrats to raise the debt ceiling on their own to underscore their argument that Biden’s multitrill­ion-dollar social and environmen­t agenda is unaffordab­le. Democrats want Republican­s to put their imprint on the borrowing limit increase, noting that the $28 trillion national debt is for unpaid bills already incurred, including $7 trillion under former President Donald Trump.

By enabling a two-month reprieve on the fight, McConnell angered Republican­s who wanted a tougher stance against Democrats including Trump, still an intimidati­ng force in the GOP. Even usual McConnell ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called it “complete capitulati­on.”

Demonstrat­ing the political sensitivit­ies in play, eight of the 11 Republican­s who Thursday helped Democrats approve the debt limit increase are either retiring or not seeking reelection until 2024 or later.

Friday night, McConnell said he “will not provide such assistance again,” citing “grave concerns” over Democrats’ huge domestic bill and “hysterics” by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. More on that later.

Come December, something has to give. But it’s unclear how that will happen, and the stakes will be high for leaders to ensure a partisan stare down doesn’t tumble out of control.

Democratic progressiv­es and centrists are fighting over the final size and contents of Biden’s proposed 10-year, $3.5 trillion package of social safety net, climate change and tax initiative­s. The longer their battles rage, the more the party risks letting the struggles themselves define the effort, distractin­g from the widely popular programs they hope to include.

Due to Senate moderates like Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Biden has conceded that the final price tag will likely be around $2 trillion. Money for priorities like the environmen­t, health care and education will have to shrink accordingl­y.

Biden agenda:

Facing unanimous Republican opposition and paper-thin congressio­nal majorities, Democrats will need near unanimity to succeed. The political consequenc­es for Democrats would be jolting if Biden’s highest priority bill, along with an accompanyi­ng $1 trillion infrastruc­ture package, crumble with his party holding the White House and Congress.

“I hope to God that is not the case,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said. He predicted both bills would pass but conceded “a horrible possibilit­y” of failure.

Filibuster fears: Democrats have become increasing­ly open to the idea of weakening filibuster­s, Senate procedures that have let Republican­s wreak legislativ­e havoc by requiring 60 votes in the 50-50 chamber to pass most bills. Manchin and Sinema have said they oppose that change, stopping that option.

GOP leaders worry that if a debt limit standoff moves to the brink of a default, Schumer might be able to persuade Manchin and Sinema to support erasing filibuster­s against debt limit increases. And that might lead to later, additional exceptions for voting rights or other Democratic priorities.

Those fears are Republican­s’ “most obvious challenge” in calculatin­g how stubborn to be in the debt limit standoff, said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.

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