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Cold turkey: Washington wavering sets up fraught holidays

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For Americans, Thanksgiving kicks off the holiday season, but for lawmakers, the 2021 celebration could be a bit of turkey./AFP
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Oct 14, 2021 - 12:38 PM

WASHINGTON — In just over a year, Americans get to vote in midterm elections that are expected to be a referendum on President Joe Biden and the Democrats in charge of Congress.

If things go his way, Biden will have passed three historic spending bills in the longest-running evenly-divided Senate in US history — a legislative achievement to match Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal or Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights reforms.

The president already has the $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan pandemic relief package under his belt, and will have been buoyed by Congress averting a looming government shutdown and catastrophic debt default.

But that’s pretty much where the good news ends.

In truth, disaster hasn’t been eliminated — it has just been delayed, and the problems are piling back up as quickly as they are being kicked into the long grass.

Congress faced four big issues as it embarked on a devilishly busy fall season: avoiding the shutdown and the debt default, getting a giant infrastructure bill over the line and passing Biden’s even bigger Build Back Better social spending program.

Lawmakers deferred the first three of these thorny issues until later in the year, while the fourth is still barely out of the starting blocks.

“They’ve had months and months to do something and they haven’t been able to pull it off,” Brendan Buck, a former senior advisor to Republican House speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner, told MSNBC.

“So I think they’ve got a long road ahead.”

Brave face 

With the president’s job approval plunging below 40 percent, the White House is putting a brave face on a fraught conclusion to its freshman year.

“I promise you, we don’t get too glum around here, even if things look challenging,” his spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday.

After weeks of partisan deadlock, Republicans decided to help Democrats pass a debt-limit hike, rubber-stamped by the House on Tuesday, that staved off the threat of a credit default.

But the $480-billion increase merely sees the country through to mid-December or early January.

Meanwhile, December 3 is the new deadline for funding federal agencies and avoiding a government shutdown, another threat that was put off rather than properly addressed by the warring parties.

The procrastination on both issues sets up potentially much trickier showdowns that could drag into election year, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell refusing to offer Republican help again.

Before those fights even begin, Biden is banking on demonstrating his domestic policy chops with the passage of twin mega-bills that have both been given soft deadlines of October 31.

The $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill — the biggest US transportation modernization in half a century — has been passed with cross-party support in the Senate and awaits approval in the House.

Democrats ‘optimistic’ 

Meanwhile, Build Back Better is the multi-trillion dollar jewel in the crown of Biden’s economic agenda.

But it’s his own party, not the other side, giving White House aides heartburn, with intensifying acrimony between the polarized progressive and moderate factions threatening both bills.

The left is smarting over centrist chiseling of Build Back Better — a $3.5-trillion program of social reforms, from universal preschool programs to free dental care — to get the bill down to $2 trillion.

And progressives are refusing to consider the infrastructure bill until they have agreement on the bigger one.

Moderates facing tough reelection battles are determined to score any legislative win that they can take onto the campaign trail, and won’t support the bigger bill until the spending for roads, bridges, ports and broadband is signed into law.

Something all Democrats agree is that it will be almost impossible to hold onto either chamber of Congress next year if they come out of the current legislative skirmishes with nothing.

“I’m not asking members to vote for something that has no chance to pass in the Senate,” Pelosi told reporters.

“I’m optimistic that we will get to where we need to be in a timely fashion.”

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