- - Saturday, June 19, 2021

One of the problems with running a campaign about nothing, like the one run by President Biden, is that if you win, your mandate from the voters is to do nothing. That’s tricky, especially if you imagine yourself to be as meaningful to the American experience as FDR.

We are watching what a mandate to do nothing means in real time.

The shrinking number of people (mostly journalists) who care about Congress have been glued to their computers and televisions this past week, breathlessly following the twists and turns of the soap opera that is the infrastructure legislation.

As of Friday, about 20 senators, split about evenly between the parties, support a much, much more modest version of the $2 trillion infrastructure proposal originally offered up by Team Biden and mostly endorsed by the progressives.

Unfortunately for the folks watching, it is unlikely that the centrist version — or perhaps any version — is going to happen.

The core of the centrist proposal is $579 billion in “new” infrastructure spending. There is no way the Biden crew can ultimately accept something that is less than one-third of $2 trillion they originally proposed. It would be too embarrassing.

Moreover, a lot of that “new” spending consists of already rejected ideas, including paying for it using unspent stimulus money (already rejected by the administration and under fire from various Democratic constituencies), or imagining that better IRS enforcement will yield enormous tax revenues (which won’t score under budget rules), or indexing the gas tax to inflation (which the Biden administration also has already rejected).

Most importantly, congressional Democrats — including leadership — have already said that a deal must be followed immediately by a reconciliation package that would include whatever the infrastructure deal fails to address as well as whichever portion of the American Families Plan can be shoehorned in.

By doing that, the congressional Democrats have essentially announced that the deal is not really a deal, it is just a way for Republicans to get on record as being in favor of some of the administration’s wish list.

Even Senate moderates eventually will figure out that such a process is a sham. Either the deal needs to incorporate everything or it is merely a facade.

At the same time, the progressives are now beginning to make it clear that their patience with the administration has run out. They have announced that they will not vote for any infrastructure legislation that doesn’t address climate change. Ominously for the administration, the deal being discussed does not address climate change, at least not in the way that folks such as Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and his boss, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, think it should.

More quietly, but every bit as lethal, a handful of moderate Democrats in the House have indicated that they are done voting for spending until we get a handle on debt. In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, five House Democrats indicated that “ … setting our country on a path to fiscal sustainability is the bare minimum we owe our constituents — and future generations.”

It is tough to see how those five lawmakers and their fellow travelers could vote for an outsized reconciliation package, whether as a follow-up or a substitute for the infrastructure deal.

Finally, as time and negotiations wear on in the Senate, it is increasingly unlikely that Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and other Democrats working the deal are going to be able or willing to untangle themselves from it and vote for an additional or substitute reconciliation package.

In short, congressional Democrats are unlikely to have the votes to pass an infrastructure deal including Republicans because of pressure from the progressives. While there are 20 senators in favor of the bipartisan deal, there are not yet 60 in favor of it, nor are there likely to be.  

They also may not have enough votes to pass a reconciliation that adds to or takes the place of such a deal.

Now stir in the debt ceiling, which will need to be increased, probably sometime this fall. Infrastructure proposals and a possible reconciliation are tied together in large measure because the debt ceiling cannot be extended through reconciliation. If the Democrats try to jam a reconciliation package through now, it likely would make increasing the debt ceiling very messy.

The tragedy is that there is a bargain to be had. Senate Democrats and the Republicans are circling an acceptable spending number and acceptable (although not optimal) ways to pay for some of that number. The insistence of the progressives in the Democratic caucus that everything else be included is what will eventually crater the entire arrangement.

This is a consequence of running a campaign about nothing and, consequently, having no mandate. Mr. Biden is unable to impose his will on anyone in any caucus because they do not fear his ability to sway voters.

A couple of weeks ago, we noted that the $2 trillion tax increases proposed by Mr. Biden are not likely to happen. If Mr. Biden can’t get taxes, infrastructure or the “families” plan done, his administration would be all but finished.

The seeds of the demise were planted 18 months ago, when he and his team decided to run a campaign consisting of nothing. As President Obama liked to say, “Elections have consequences.” He’s right.

• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to President Trump and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.

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