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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: A wedge of political debris

by John Brummett | September 29, 2021 at 3:00 a.m.

At this early-week writing, it seems possible Democrats will leave September without passing either the bipartisan infrastructure bill or the big social-spending bill and that the nation will end the month with a government about to close and soon to default on its debt.

That would all be the fault of this modern partisan obsession with using one issue to leverage another, either for one's own partisan advantage or to cause the greatest inconvenience to the opposing party.

Every human need is a political wedge, it seems.

Simple bills doing singular things to be considered up or down on their own merit--they don't much do that kind of thing in Washington.

There are four main components of this looming debacle. Let us consider them.

One is a $1.2 trillion basic infrastructure bill negotiated by centrist Democrats and centrist Republicans and passed with 67 votes by the U.S. Senate. In a sane world, it would be an uncontested layup in the House.

But House Democratic "progressives" threaten to vote against it--and doom it because conservative Republicans will oppose it too--unless House Democratic moderates simultaneously commit to voting for the $3.5 trillion--and shrinking--progressive wish list that includes Medicare expansion, Medicaid expansion, home health expansion, paid family leave, climate control measures, free community college, universal pre-kindergarten and assorted tax increases targeting the highest incomes.

That social-spending wish list is thus the second element, holding the first hostage solely within one party, the Democratic one. That's because the Democratic Party presumes to span socialists from Vermont and the Bronx and a center-right political operator from West Virginia and a quirky centrist from Arizona.

It's become clear the $3.5 trillion must lose size and scope even to bow its head, much less start a prayer. Yet the progressive insistence persists.

Progressives say House moderates--and the nation--may have better roads, bridges, water systems and broadband only if the moderates will sign on to vote for a social-spending wish list currently in a fluid state.

Meantime, the third element is that the federal fiscal year ends the last day of September, and, absent some mechanism of extended spending authority, most federal agencies will need to close their doors or at least significantly reduce activities on Friday.

House Democrats, led by the reputed genius of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, cooked up a scheme on that. They designed and passed on a party-line vote an extension until December that also included additional hurricane-relief funding for Louisiana and the Northeast and, while they were at it, permitted continued debt payments--that's the debt ceiling, our fourth element--until the end of 2022.

Just try voting against that, Senate Republicans, the Democrats were saying.

OK, we will, said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell says Democrats can attend to that by their own votes--avoiding the filibuster requiring Republican votes--since they seem determined to try to cram that $3.5 trillion down Republicans' throats by a process avoiding them and a filibuster and known as "reconciliation."

He believes he can make worse the mess Democrats are making for themselves and that Democrats would get the midterm blame.

If any of this sounds childish, I would contend that children are being insulted.

Linear logic could fix all of this, as follows:

• The infrastructure bill would be passed forthwith with a solid House majority because most people are for it and the nation needs it.

• The larger Democratic social-spending bill would be pared and then prioritized, one set of issues at a time, and considered incrementally up or down on merit by processes once known as debating and legislating. Democrats could use budget reconciliation on their top or most difficult priority and work for Republican votes on the rest--or wait for other years and new reconciliation authority. But they'd need to win the midterms for that, an objective best met by not making the kind of mess they're making. Big agendas need time, consensus and mandates, and those aren't earned by one election of backlash against Trump producing a 50-50 Senate.

• A simple spending extension standing alone could be passed by both parties, since both believe in keeping government working and in helping those devastated by hurricanes.

• The stand-alone debt ceiling could be raised by a bipartisan vote for the simple reason that everyone knows it has to be done to avoid global financial calamity and that raising the debt ceiling does not add debt, but merely enables the government to pay on already-incurred debt.

Republicans routinely raised the debt ceiling when they were in charge.

So, who is to blame?

Democrats are to blame for their own internal tactical futility. Republicans are to blame for the rest of it.

And all of us are to blame for what we put up with.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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