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Congress is about to face 3 key tests of how functional it is in the Biden era

·Senior Writer
·3 min read
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President Biden’s domestic agenda is facing a pivotal week of votes and negotiations amid internal strife between moderate and progressive Democrats and stiff opposition from Republicans.

There are two big pieces of legislation that congressional Democrats will need to coalesce around in the coming days or risk sacrificing their best opportunity in decades to change the country. Meanwhile, Congress will soon have to find a way to either raise the U.S. borrowing limit — a move Republicans object to — or potentially trigger a massive economic earthquake. Finally, unless Congress also manages to pass a separate funding bill this week, a government shutdown will occur.

Here’s the breakdown of a big week on Capitol Hill.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill

Last month, 19 Republicans joined all 50 Senate Democrats in passing an agreement negotiated by moderates in both parties. If signed into law, the bill would allocate $550 billion in new money — about a quarter of Biden’s initial request — for bridges, roads, waterways, broadband internet expansion, public transportation and airports. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the goal was to pass the bipartisan infrastructure deal along with a larger budget deal (addressed below), an arrangement that helped earn the support of the more liberal members of their caucus who found the legislation lacking.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., attend a rally with Paid Leave for All to advocate for paid family and medical leave, near the Capitol Reflecting Pool on August 04, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in August. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

The House vote on the bipartisan deal was set for Monday after Pelosi cut a deal with some centrist Democrats weeks ago, but she has since pushed it to Thursday. Currently, dozens of progressive House members — with the support of at least 11 Democratic senators who voted for the bill originally — have said they will not vote yes on the bipartisan deal until the budget has also passed. With House Republicans unlikely to support the infrastructure bill at the same rate as their Senate counterparts, it will likely fail unless Pelosi can convince some of those progressives to change their votes.

The budget deal

In order to get progressives behind the infrastructure deal, Democrats need to agree on passing a budget that would look to mitigate climate change and expand the country’s social safety net, among other progressive priorities. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., originally proposed a budget that would spend $6 trillion over 10 years, but Democrats on the Budget Committee, which Sanders chairs, negotiated it down to $3.5 trillion over 10 years.

Related: What's in the Democrats' big spending bills and how they would affect your life >>>

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) steps off an elevator as he arrives prior to the weekly Senate Democratic policy lunch at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on September 14, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., steps off an elevator in the U.S. Capitol. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Because Democrats need 50 Senate votes in order to pass their budget through a process called reconciliation, they must appease all 50 members of their caucus. But Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have been outspoken in their belief that $3.5 trillion is too high a price tag, with Manchin even suggesting that the entire negotiations be postponed until next year. Making matters even more difficult for negotiators is that Manchin and Sinema haven’t publicly outlined what, exactly, they want in the bill.

Keeping the government running

Amid all the negotiations over Biden’s domestic agenda, Congress also needs to keep the government running.

Over the past few decades, Congress has consistently raised or suspended the debt ceiling, which limits the U.S. government's ability to borrow money to pay its bills. During the Trump administration, the debt ceiling was suspended three times on bipartisan votes. The Treasury Department has said the current debt limit will be breached sometime in October if no actions are taken, which could cause tremendous economic turmoil.

House Democrats approved a measure last week, via a party line vote, to both continue funding the government through December and lift the debt limit through December 2022. However, this is expected to fail in the Senate, where it needs at least 10 Republican votes to pass. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to assist in the process, with a Monday-evening vote on the bill failing.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., returns to the Senate chamber for a vote at the Capitol in Washington on Sept. 23, 2021. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol on Thursday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Congress must also continue funding the government by Friday — a task Republicans are leaving to Democrats — or risk a government shutdown. If a shutdown occurs, national parks and museums would close, while many federal employees, such as those involved in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, would be furloughed.

The most recent government shutdown, which occurred from December 2018 through January 2019, lasted a record 35 days as then-President Donald Trump pushed for border wall funding.


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