How to Understand This Week’s Senate Fireworks

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Fireworks go off over the National Mall during the inauguration of President Joe Biden on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. Law enforcement and state officials were on high alert for po... WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Fireworks go off over the National Mall during the inauguration of President Joe Biden on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. Law enforcement and state officials were on high alert for potentially violent protests as Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States at today's inauguration ceremony. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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July 20, 2021 9:03 a.m.

The insider sheets this morning paint Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats in a pretty tough bind, with Republicans holding most or all of the cards. Schumer is creating a put up or shut up moment for the bipartisan mini-bill by scheduling the first of several votes on the deal for this Wednesday. If Republicans don’t produce 10 votes, either 500 billion or a trillion of ‘hard’ infrastructure falls by the wayside and that in turn endangers the series of compromises that gets all 50 Democratic Senators lined up for the big infrastructure reconciliation package where most of the big progressive priorities are housed.

But this misstates the dynamics at play or rather places the initiative or leverage in Republican hands more than it is. Coverage in the big outfits like the Post seems entirely oblivious to this part of the story and takes Republican stalling tactics at face value, as no more than good faith efforts to write legislative language. Let’s start with the reality that this will be a months long, really complicated process. Democrats have to carry all of it alone with Republicans trying to upend it at every stage. Schumer is pressing forward aggressively now both because Republicans don’t hold the deciding hand here and to ensure that they don’t.

If Republicans won’t produce 10 votes for the bipartisan mini-bill, Democrats can simply pile that money into the reconciliation bill. While no one wants to say that out loud or say it too loudly, that looks like what they will do. (Bernie Sanders said it out loud yesterday.) Senate Democrats who feel a bipartisan package is a critical box to check will decide that that box has been checked, that Republicans sprinkled the mini-bill with bipartisan sparkly dust irrevocably even if fewer than ten of them or even none end up voting for it. “Good luck getting moderate Democrats in the House and Senate” to go for that, says Punchbowl’s morning newsletter. But my reporting and conversations with players in the process says that they eventually will.

Now, do it easily? No. But that’s not really the point. This is about who’s controlling the process. The central issue is whether Republicans are in charge of a central choke point that can derail or indefinitely delay the President’s entire infrastructure agenda. If everything is contingent on the bipartisan mini-bill and that only proceeds at the ever-receding point in future when Republicans are finally ready, then this is all a charade with Democrats playing the fools for Mitch McConnell. Democrats need to be able to say ‘We’ve got a reconciliation bill and a bipartisan mini-bill. We’re passing the first on our own. You can join us on the second or we can do that on our own too. Your choice. Both are getting passed either way.’

As I said, this is all about who’s controlling the process, who controls the timing. That’s why Schumer is insisting on moving ahead with the mini-bill this week. It’s a put up or shut up moment. It’s about maintaining control of the process. What Schumer and his colleagues have to finesse is that this all works as long moderates in the House and Senate don’t think any breakdown with the mini-bill is the fault of progressive Democrats. So far there’s little sign of that.

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It’s always important to remember that this is fundamentally a negotiation between and among Democrats. It’s all about getting to 50 votes, holding every member of the Senate caucus on board and avoiding any stray stragglers in the House. Republicans are more pieces on the chess board than anyone playing the game. The whole drama over recent months has been about Republicans trying to use delaying tactics and the opaque nature of the Senate to promote themselves from pieces on the board to players at the table and Democrats attempts to prevent that. So far they have avoided that and last week’s compromise agreement on a $3.5 trillion reconciliation framework was a key part of that. Keeping that on track is what this week is about.

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