White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that this week’s high-stakes, unresolved and unpredictable drama on Capitol Hill was “like an episode of a TV show.”
A reporter quickly asked, “What TV show?”
“Maybe The West Wing, if something good happens. Maybe Veep if not,” she said.
She was talking specifically about the prospects that a key part of Joe Biden’s agenda, the roughly $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, will even make it to the House floor, as is planned, on Thursday. The fate of this piece of legislation, which was already passed by a bipartisan majority in the Senate, will depend on whether Democrats can reach an agreement to a larger package of $3.5 trillion, also known as the Build back Better Act. This package would increase the social safety net, and provide large outlays to address and counter climate change.
The Senate must have every Democratic vote to give the bill a chance. However, Sen. Joe Manchin (D.WV) as well as Sen. Kyrsten sinema (D.AZ), are sceptical about the price tag. Progressives are vowing to fight the infrastructure package unless there is a guarantee of passage of the Build back Better Act.
In other words, it’s an intra-party standoff.
But that’s not even the immediate drama. The government’s funding is due to run out Thursday night. Without congressional action, another shutdown will occur. It is widely believed that Congress will pass a bill on time.
It is less certain what will happen to the debt limit. Janet Yellen, Treasury Secretary has warned that the government’s cash reserves will run out by October 18, unless the borrowing threshold increases. The U.S. is at risk of defaulting. This is something that the United States has never done, and economists predict it will send the economy into freefall.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says he knows that the U.S. can’t default, but he wants Democrats to bear all responsibility for raising the debt limit and connect it to their $3.5 trillion package, via a process called reconciliation, as a way to tag them as out-of-control spenders. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) refuses to attach a debt limit increase to that legislation, calling it “risky” and time consuming while blasting Republicans for trying to score political points when the U.S. credit rating is at stake. Schumer proposed an alternative scenario — a stand-alone bill to raise the debt ceiling that could pass only with the votes of Democrats — but McConnell refused. The two senators barely glanced at one another as they discussed their positions Tuesday on the Senate floor.
Although the polarized Congress is not new to Capitol Hill, some veterans Capitol Hill reporters claim that they have never seen it quite this way.
“I’ve covered a lot of these debt limit fights dating back to 2011,” Jake Sherman, who is also the co-founder and chief executive of Punchbowl News wrote on Twitter. “This may be the worst/scariest.”
How does an average viewer view all of the urgency? It’s possible. It’s a big week in Washington, but the policy jargon being bandied about, with terms like “CR,” debt limit, reconciliation and even infrastructure, is over the heads of many — even plenty of editors less interested in the mechanics of what is going on and more interested in the end result. Will the government shut down? Will the U.S. default in its current state?
That’s probably why, when it comes to the Biden agenda, there has been so much focus on Manchin and Sinema, two colorful personalities who have for months been routinely trailed by a gaggle of reporters but have yet to publicly say what kind of Build Back Better/reconciliation bill they are willing to accept. To reporters, Manchin has been ever accessible; Sinema less so, but she did have a sharp response on Wednesday to a question from Frank Thorp V. He asked what she would say to progressives who are frustrated that they don’t know where she is in all of this.
“I’m in the Senate,” She said.
No one is predicting much of anything so far, even as it’s all being covered as a make-or-break moment for Democrats, the Biden agenda and the country, albeit all a bit difficult to explain.
In the midst of all of this on Wednesday was the appearance of Woody Harrelson, in town to shoot HBO’s limited series The White House Plumbers. He was seen at the Capitol along with Nancy Pelosi, House Speaker.
Pelosi was later asked if she was worried about not having the votes necessary to pass the infrastructure bill.
“One hour at a time,” She said.