I’m seeing lots of mainstream press commentary that Bernie Sanders had to scale back his ambitions a lot, essentially take a loss agreeing to a $3.5 trillion reconciliation framework. He wanted $6 trillion but had to settle for $3.5T. This seems to me a wildly blinkered view, verging on oblivious or tendentious.
You don’t negotiate by starting with what you’ll settle for or even what you want. You start with a high bid as Sanders clearly did here. That’s not a loss. That’s negotiating. The other point to keep in mind is that when you add up $3.5 trillion plus the bipartisan mini-bill plus the spending on the China/innovation legislation you come to a total number pretty close to Biden’s high end original set of proposals.
One of my criticisms of this process has been the opacity, the plodding pace, the way in which the popular goods being provided to the American people get obscured and confused by all sorts of internal-to-the-senate gobbledygook and process. I maintain a lot of that criticism because those things have important political consequences. But the other side of that is all the optics and process and frustration don’t matter nearly as much as what you actually get. And this looks on track to get most of the package. I’ve been critical over the years of what I see as some of Bernie Sanders political and characterological shortcomings. But his greatest strengths come through here. He’s clearly not focused on the looks of it or the labeling or chattering about wins or losses or how they reflect on him or his political clout but rather where you actually get, the final result. Show me the money, you might say. And Sanders is both showing it and being shown it.
Now, this is far from over. This $3.5 trillion isn’t passed. It’s just moving through the budget committee. It can be chipped away at by Manchin and Sinema and other more moderate members of the caucus. But the committee has representatives of those voices. And this outline of spending, both with the committee’s imprimatur and moving through the reconciliation process has a huge amount of forward momentum behind it.
There’s still the issue of scoring and the Senate parliamentarian’s rulings about what meet the standards of the reconciliation process. That came up with the COVID relief bill. But remember that the parliamentarian rulings aren’t really rulings. They’re advice. The majority can simply decline to accept the recommendation. Manchin and others wouldn’t go along with that last time. But this reminds us that the parliamentarian issue is just permutation of the caucus unity issue. You have to keep all 50 Senators together on the budgetary substance and then also on the various process questions. But really they’re all the same thing. And the political dynamics of that question might well be different on this reconciliation bill than the rapid fire COVID relief one.
Final point. This still leaves the bipartisan mini-bill which now seems to be on life support at best and was always probably an illusion. As the reconciliation bill takes shape Republicans are getting more and more opposed – likely because much of the motivation for supporting it was to derail the reconciliation bill. If that fails, what happens to that money? This strikes me as the most important question right. It seems to me that having checked that bipartisan box they can just keep the “bipartisan” label and pile it into the reconciliation bill. But we shall see.