By Byron York
THE DEMOCRATIC CAVE BEGINS. Remember when President Joe Biden stunned the political world by threatening to veto a bipartisan $1.1 trillion traditional infrastructure spending bill that he, Joe Biden, had just encouraged the Senate to pass? It was a bizarre moment, but Biden was accommodating House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who planned to use the bipartisan bill as a hostage to force the passage of the much larger, partisan, $3.5 trillion social and climate spending bill that Democrats wanted. If you want the traditional infrastructure spending, Pelosi told House members, you’ll have to vote for the $3.5 trillion in left-wing Democratic priorities, too.
Now Pelosi has caved. Reports say she will allow the House to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Thursday. The reason is that the $3.5 trillion bill has just not come together in the Senate. No one seems to know what Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will vote for, and without all 50 Democratic senators on board, the bill will go nowhere. At the very least, it will take a while to do.
Meanwhile, the $1.1 trillion traditional infrastructure bill has been passed by the Senate. All the House has to do is vote on it. Lawmakers can pass it anytime and send it to the president’s desk for signature. And they will do so; there is no way in the world Democrats will just leave $1.1 trillion sitting on the table. And why keep waiting for a $3.5 trillion pie-in-the-sky bill that might or might not happen and in any event will involve more infighting among Democrats? Pass the $1.1 trillion now. Take the win.
That is what Pelosi is doing. But of course, taking the win is actually a cave for Pelosi in the sense that she vowed not to do it this way and has now surrendered to the so-called centrists in her party — and to common sense. So now, when the House passes the bill, and Biden signs it, Democrats can go back to fighting among themselves about the $3.5 trillion.
Before that, though, Congress has to pass a bill to keep the government funded, and then, after that, a bill to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. That’s where Pelosi (and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer) face some tough choices.
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Remember the government shutdown of 2018? In polling, more people blamed Republicans for the spending impasse than blamed Democrats. Now, things are different. A new Politico-Morning Consult poll shows that if there is a government shutdown, more of those surveyed will blame Democrats more than Republicans. Thirty-two percent of the registered voters polled say they will blame Democrats more than the GOP, while 24% say they will blame Republicans more than Democrats. (Thirty-six percent say they will blame both parties equally.)
Back in 2018, 41% of those surveyed in another Politico-Morning Consult poll said they would blame Republicans for a government shutdown, versus 36% who blamed Democrats.
Pelosi and Schumer face a situation that is much different from 2018, when they were in the minority on Capitol Hill and Donald Trump was in the White House. Democrats are in charge in Washington. Voters know that, and they will hold the party accountable for a shutdown. This is why there will not be a shutdown. (And in any event, remember that the phrase “government shutdown” is not very accurate because most of the government’s big spending programs keep running right through any supposed “shutdown.”)
So Pelosi will cave on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and then she and her party will cave on government funding. That leaves the debt ceiling negotiations, which will take longer but are also likely to result in a Democratic compromise.
Why all the caving? For the same reason as always. Democrats don’t have the votes to steamroll the opposition. Pelosi has a bare, single-digit majority in the House, and Democrats do not control a majority of seats in the 50-50 Senate, relying on Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties. You don’t pass New Deal-sized legislation without a solid majority in the House and Senate. In the last eight months, Democratic ambitions have far outstripped their power on Capitol Hill. Now, reality is setting in.