To Bi- or not to Bi-?
#39 -- Who's right about the optimal Biden strategy? We have a winner.
Failure really isn’t an option for Dems: Everyone knows Biden’s proposed a $2 trillion "hard" infrastructure plan -- roads, bridges, pipes, etc.--and a "soft" plan that would spend another couple of trillion on child care, universal pre-school, free community college, and cash welfare payments to parents, among other things.
Suppose you didn't want certain parts of this "soft" bill to pass. Suppose — just hypothetically — you also don’t believe there is enough good stuff in the rest of the “soft” package to make up for the bad things. In an up or down vote, you'd just as soon the Soft plan got voted down. Hypothetically, of course.
If you feel this way, do you want Biden to — as is being discussed — cut a proffered bipartisan deal to pass a compromise $1 trillion or so worth of "hard" infrastructure before moving on to the "soft" package — which he’d then try to pass under “reconciliation” rules that, assuming zero GOP support, would require him to muster every Dem senator)? Or do you want him to blow off the bipartisan deal and try for the whole Hard-n’-Soft enchilada in one package -- on the grounds that (heh, heh) it's likely to go down in flames?
This is basically the flip side of the Question of the Hour for Biden and the ambitious progressive supporters who desperately want the Soft package to pass: Should he stop spending all this time on bipartisanship and go straight to “reconciliation” to pass everything on a party-line vote?
The arguments for and against taking the partial bipartisan deal — let’s do it from the pro-administration point of view —can be summarized as follows:
Take the Deal! Fulfill a campaign promise to work with Republicans. Eat the enchilada one bite at a time. A Hard deal will let Manchin and Sinema bank their "bipartisan" points, allowing them to more easily vote the straight party line on the remaining spending. These are big complex packages with large arrays of interest groups to please -- and the more you can take off the table with Bill #1 (and not have to “pay for” under “reconciliation” rules) the simpler passing the rest of the package will be. Try to do it all in One Big Bill and it may fall apart.
Ditch the deal! Hard infrastructure is popular. Soft infrastructure … isn't really all that popular (and isn't really infrastructure). If you let the Congresspeople enact the popular parts are they really going to come back and enact the unpopular parts in some sloppy Leftovers bill? No. You want to make them take one up-or-down vote, where they have to say "yes" to get the things they want.
Like many, I've been driving myself a little mad trying to figure out which of these is better for Soft supporters, so I can push for the opposite. In the abstract, is it generally easier to build support for One Big Bill (because there’s something in it for everyone) or easier to build opposition to a big bill (because there's something in it to use against everyone in a campaign ad)? That’s an excellent poli-sci question. I don't know the answer.
But I don’t think you need to know the answer, at least in the abstract — because the answer to the question in this particular instance -- the Question of the Hour — seems clear enough: The anxious progressives are right — if you’re a Dem who wants to pass massive Soft welfare state spending to turn Biden into the New LBJ, you need one big bill, passed through reconciliation. If, like me, you don't care for the "soft" bill, you want Biden to first cut the bipartisan "hard" deal.
Why? The key point is the fear, which you hear all the time from knowledgeable people, that the One Big Bill might all fall apart. Quite simply, it seems inconceivable that it will completely fall apart -- that Dems will collapse into bickering, run out of time and pass no infrastructure bill, Soft or Hard, heading into a close midterm election. "Well, voters, we failed!"— that is not the campaign slogan you want if you want to stay in politics, let alone in the majority. That’s especially true if you’ve swept into Congress on a wave of world-historic braggadocio about how you were going to save democracy and pack the Supreme Court and add two new states, etc. If Dems go for a big Dems-only bill and it starts failing … well, the Dems will regroup and pass a smaller bill, more pleasing to moderate Dems, that might or might not include some "soft" priorities in with the Hard. But they’ll pass something.
What you don't want to do in this sort of negotiation, if you’re a "soft" infrastructure person, is give those moderates a chance to vote against all the Soft parts while still being able to tell their constituents,"Hey we already passed a bipartisan roads and bridges bill." That would greatly enhance their ability to say no — and to say no to particular provisions (like, say, cash “tax credits” to non-taxpayers).
It’s not just that the moderates love roads and bridges and would already have some. It’s that, with a smaller bipartisan bill already passed, they wouldn’t have to worry about the political calamity of passing nothing at all. **
In any post-deal Leftovers bill, the leverage of each single member will be huge, because unanimity will be required in the Senate — and near unanimity in the House. Take out X to please Senator Y or he might tank the bill. Add X to please Representative Z. Those —i.e. progressives — who desperately want the Leftover package to pass, won’t be able to make an equivalent threat to tank the bill.
With One Big Bill, in contrast, few people, moderate or progressive, can credibly threaten to tank the bill because everybody will have the same gun pointed at their heads — namely the political consequence of passing nothing.
Moral: If you're not crazy about the progressives’ ambitious plans for a day care state or an elder care state -- or if you really don't want them to revive welfare with a "child tax credit" dole (have I mentioned that?) -- you should want Biden to keep negotiating on the bipartisan group’s roads & bridges deal. The idea that such deal will enhance Biden’s ability to get his expensive, very progressive Soft package through a unanimous Dem caucus seems fanciful. ***
P.S.: This is just between us. It may be useful during the next few months to pretend that an initial "hard" deal might improve the chances of making the “child tax credit” permanent. Sure it will.
** The Soft and Hard parts could be swapped — with a bipartisan child care/ pre-school deal about to be cut, while the Hard spending was left for reconciliation — and this calculation would be the same.
***—You have to wonder if some of the Biden advisers pushing the deal — or Biden — secretly know this.