- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 22, 2021

The chaos in Afghanistan may have changed global headlines, but it has done little to shake Democrats from their course at home. House members return to Capitol Hill on Monday to begin advancing the party’s $3.5 trillion makeover of the American social safety net.

Debates about welcoming tens of thousands of Afghan migrants did nothing to derail Democrats’ hopes of approving an amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants already in the U.S. as part of that makeover. Questions about the U.S. retreat have not dimmed party leaders’ plans this fall to erase one of the authorizations for the use of military force that underpinned the global war on terror.

Democrats also show little sign of backing off from a series of bills that increase domestic spending but limit the growth of Pentagon accounts.

Republicans say that will have to change.

“This crisis is going to impact every discussion on appropriations and in the oversight arena,” Sen. Bill Hagerty, Tennessee Republican, told The Washington Times.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled major debates ahead over military funding in a statement after President Biden’s update Friday on the situation in Afghanistan. The Kentucky Republican said the U.S. must arm itself for battles to regain allies’ trust and contain al Qaeda.

“This will require leaders who are honest with the American people about the terrorist threats that remain and about the need to give our military service members and intelligence professionals the resources they need to win,” Mr. McConnell said.

The Pentagon sent a formal request late last week to reprogram $400 million for the Defense Department’s evacuation from Afghanistan.

Though congressional Democrats have shown significant hand-wringing over the chaos in Afghanistan and even expressed biting criticism of Mr. Biden’s handling of the affair, their most concrete action so far has been to announce hearings and briefings.

Most of the party leaders’ legislative focus is on the $3.5 trillion budget proposal that the Senate cleared earlier this month.

Under Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s orders, House lawmakers are interrupting a lengthy summer vacation to hold several days of votes to advance the Democrats’ package of social welfare programs and to support an elections bill.

The votes are early tests of Mrs. Pelosi’s quest for unity on the massive budget package. Nine centrist Democrats — more than enough to scuttle the speaker’s plans — are pondering whether to block the speaker’s move to tie the purely partisan budget package to a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Tucked inside the budget are the outlines of plans to create federally funded universal preschool, expand federal mandates for family leave, broaden Medicare and pursue parts of the Green New Deal climate change policy.

The budget bill also includes space for lawmakers to approve an amnesty for illegal immigrants. Democrats hope to cover millions of farmworkers, “essential workers,” “Dreamers” and those in the U.S. under temporary humanitarian protection.

If the budget bill passes the House, then committees in both chambers will go to work writing the details of each proposal.

To help the budget clear the House, Mrs. Pelosi is trying to keep on board her party’s left flank, which wants the broadest possible spending, while not losing the support of centrists, who aren’t sold on that level of government growth.

She has said she won’t pass the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure legislation until senators write and pass the complete details of the $3.5 trillion government makeover, giving her a chance to force both bills on the House floor at the same time.

“When the House returns on August 23rd, it is essential that we pass the budget resolution so that we can move forward united and determined to realize President Biden’s transformative vision and deliver historic progress,” Mrs. Pelosi wrote in a letter to colleagues.

Although the budget bill has cleared the Senate, two Democrats who voted for it — Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — signaled that they will need to see a lower price tag when the package comes back for a final vote later this year.

Some House staffers said they might be able to sweeten the deal for Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema by adding money to help resettle Afghan refugees and provide humanitarian assistance, turning the $3.5 trillion budget package into a referendum on support for the Afghan people.

It’s not just Congress where Democrats are hoping to look beyond Afghanistan. Senior White House adviser Neera Tanden said refugee resettlement and humanitarian aid are priorities at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., even amid the chaos.

“The No. 1 priority for our Cabinet overall, from our perspective here, is to build support throughout the [August] recess process for the legislative agenda,” Ms. Tanden told the Los Angeles Times.

Mr. Biden underscored that point in a call over the weekend with Mrs. Pelosi. According to a White House account, the president briefed the speaker on Afghanistan evacuation efforts and then pivoted to the work on the $3.5 trillion budget, particularly their plans to raise taxes and give negotiation authority on Medicare drug prices.

One Republican Party strategist said the Afghanistan chaos might embolden Democratic leaders to move faster, before Mr. Biden’s powers of persuasion have peaked. The longer the wait, the less help the president can be — particularly if he doesn’t notch some big successes in the Afghanistan airlift.

Republicans are eager to keep up the pressure.

Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the third-ranking House Republican, and Rep. Robert J. Wittman, Virginia Republican, announced legislation to create a commission to investigate errors in the withdrawal planning.

Also weighing on Democrats are the 2022 midterm elections. Even before Afghanistan, Democrats were facing serious headwinds in their bid to keep control of the House, and this month’s events only hurt their effort.

A handful of Senate Democrats up for reelection in states Republicans are targeting have signed a letter urging Mr. Biden to successfully evacuate Americans and protect Afghan women.

“It is an issue that plays extremely well with the Republican base, and it is an issue that will play well with unaffiliated voters because they see it as a human tragedy — and see it through a leadership lens rather than a partisan lens,” said Paul Schumaker, a North Carolina-based Republican Party strategist. “If it is at the forefront of 2022, it will move the needle with White suburban female voters.”

Brenda Lopez Romero, chair of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party in Georgia, said voters in her diverse battleground state don’t see political gain or loss in the sadness of Afghanistan.

“Outside of the politicos and D.C. circles, the concern has really been focused on how we make sure that those in Afghanistan that have been supporting and helping the U.S. military and our allies are protected, and if they want to leave, to provide them a way to find those people refuge and protection,” she said.

• Haris Alic, Mica Soellner and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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