LENOX — “What’s in the damn bill?!” Sen. Bernie Sanders roared (again) the other day. His point was that most Americans don’t know the details of the social safety net and climate change policies in the Democratic Party’s whittled-down, not-so-Great Society sequel that remains a moving target on Capitol Hill.
The Vermont senator, a well-meaning, self-described independent socialist who lives in Fantasyland, would have preferred a $6 trillion social spending extravaganza. But he “settled” for President Biden’s $3.2 trillion package, now trimmed to just under $2 trillion.
As the details shift hour by hour, Sanders can’t know what’s in the bill and what’s out, and neither does anyone else.
Sadly, Sanders — like many other progressives — doesn’t recognize that the U.S. is a center-right nation, tilting further to the right.
Last Wednesday, he huddled behind closed doors with Sen. Joe Manchin, the DINO (Democrat in name only) who later groused that the speculation he’ll bolt to the Republican party is “BS.”
He might as well, if only to destroy the fiction that Democrats control Congress. It’s a 50-50 split in the Senate, with VP Harris able to cast the deciding vote in case of a tie, and there’s only a three-vote Democratic margin in the House.
No wonder Biden’s FDR and LBJ-style ambitions to close the chasm of inequality that makes a mockery of this nation’s supposed egalitarian values are crashing into a harsh obstacle course.
The Sanders-Manchin squabble, as leaked reports indicated, encapsulates the cold civil war within the Democratic party, while Republicans look in gleefully as they contemplate a good chance of taking back control of Congress just over a year from now, and — most unlikely — the presidency in 2024 with Trump as their candidate.
In case you missed it, Manchin threatened that he’d be comfortable with no social spending package, evidently enraged after Sanders restated his original dream of a $6 trillion bill that would create what the West Virginia senator lambasted as an “entitlement society.”
According to several other senators in that supposedly private meeting, Manchin said, “We shouldn’t do it at all… This will contribute to inflation. We’ve already passed the American Rescue Plan. We should just pass the [$1.2 trillion] infrastructure bill and, you know, pause for six months.”
Centrist and mildly liberal senators continue to voice optimism that a compromise will be struck. But with Manchin and Arizona’s inscrutable Sen. Kyrsten Sinema holding what amounts to veto power, it’s hard to hope for a major spending package. And the prospects for passing the much-needed infrastructure bill are also precarious despite bipartisan support.
“This is not gonna happen anytime soon, guys,” said Manchin, referring to the social and climate policy bill. He predicted it won’t happen at all.
To meet Sinema’s objections, Biden is jettisoning the proposed tax increases for corporations and individuals earning above $400,000 a year that would have helped pay for the stripped-down legislation. Instead, there’s talk of a new tax on billionaires’ investment gains.
Also on the chopping block: Sanders’s pet project, expanding Medicare to pay for dental and vision benefits. Twelve weeks of paid family leave, now down to four weeks. Two years of free community college? Out of the question. So is a path to permanent legal status for some undocumented immigrants.
There’s still potential for other major benefits in the bill: At least $500 billion to tackle climate change (without the highly touted clean energy plan that would have punished utilities that don’t phase out fossil fuels), $350 billion for child care subsidies, a one-year extension of the $300 monthly tax credit for parents, and expansion of Affordable Care Act subsidies.
“Nothing is decided until everything is decided,” said U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We’re just trying to get it done.”
As Biden put it during CNN’s Town Hall on Thursday night, “When you’re president of the United States, you have 50 Democrats — every one is a president. Every single one. So you gotta work things out. It’s all about compromise. Compromise has become a dirty word, but bipartisanship and compromise still has to be possible.”
The president is well-intentioned and his proposals, even in truncated form, deserve support. It’s unfathomable that no Republican will back the plan.
But the realists among us shouldn’t be surprised. It may be premature to abandon hope, but the prospects of a successful final deal by Halloween are flimsy and fragile. More likely, frustration and disappointment will surround us as we approach the often dismal month of November.