President Joe Biden is settling in for what appears will be a long summer slog of legislating.
Congress is hunkered down, the House and Senate grinding through a months-long stretch, lawmakers trying to draft Biden’s big infrastructure ideas into bills that could actually be signed into law. Perhaps not since the drafting of the Affordable Care Act more than a decade ago has Washington tried a legislative lift as heavy.
It’s going to take a while.
Biden appears comfortable in this space, embarked on an agenda in Congress that’s rooted in his top legislative priority — the $4 trillion “build back better” investments now being shaped as his American Jobs and American Families plans.
To land the bills on his desk, the President is relying on an old-school legislative process that can feel out of step with today’s fast-moving political cycles and hopes for quick payoffs. Democrats are anxious it is taking too long and he is wasting precious time negotiating with Republicans, but Biden seems to like the laborious art of legislating.
On Monday, Biden is expected to launch another week of engagement with members of both parties, and the White House is likely at some point to hear from a bipartisan group of senators working on a scaled-back $1 trillion plan as an alternative.
At the same time, the administration is pushing ahead with the President’s own, more sweeping proposals being developed in the House and Senate budget committees, tallying as much as $6 trillion, under a process that could enable Democrats to pass it on their own. Initial votes are being eyed for late July.
“This is how negotiations work,” White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said during last week’s twists and turns of the infrastructure negotiations.
“We continue to work closely with Democrats of all views — as well as Republicans — on the path forward. There are many possible avenues to getting this done, and we are optimistic about our chances,” Bates said.
Lawmakers also have been energized by the speed at which Congress was able to approve COVID-19 relief — the massive CARES Act at the start of the pandemic in 2020 and more recently Biden’s American Rescue Plan in February. They are eager for swift action on these next proposals.
The Senate has set a procedural vote Tuesday on the For the People Act, a significant rewrite of voting and election law that the White House has called a “cause” for the President. Democrats are working on changes that could win moderate Democrat Joe Manchin’s support, but they’d still need 60 votes to advance the bill.
Biden’s strategy this time is a two-part approach. He is trying to secure a bipartisan deal on roads, bridges and broadband — the more traditional types of infrastructure — while also pursuing the broader Democratic priorities package.
The budget committees are preparing some $6 trillion in spending on what the White House calls the human infrastructure of Americans’ lives with child care centers, community colleges and elder care in Biden’s plans, adding in Democrats’ other long-running ideas. Among them, expanding Medicare for seniors with vision, hearing and dental services, and lowering the eligibility age to 60.
Regardless of whether Biden succeeds or fails in the on-again-off-again talks with Republicans, Democrats will press on with their own massive package, the President at least having showed he tried.
“There are two kinds of negotiation,” said Democrat Barney Frank, the former congressman and committee chairman from Massachusetts who was central to many Obama-era legislative battles. “One that will be successful and give you a good bill,” he said, and the other that will be unsuccessful, but will at least “take away any stigma of being partisan.”
Congress is eyeing an end-of-summer deadline to launch the budget reconciliation process, which would allow passage of the bills on majority votes instead of the usual 60 needed for most legislation. The Senate is split 50-50, but Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote.
As the process drags on, it’s a reminder that it took more than a year in Congress to pass the Affordable Care Act, which was signed into law in spring 2010.