Biden’s Social Spending Bill: A drama in 4 acts

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Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” and George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman” all have something in common with the Democrats’ $1.75 trillion social spending bill:

They are all dramas in four acts.

The first act for Democrats was a long one. It stretched back to September when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., suggested they would pass the social spending bill by the end of the month. After weeks of legislative and political delirium, Pelosi finally muscled that bill to passage in the House with only one Democratic defection: Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine. 

“The biggest hurdle was to get there,” said Pelosi at a press conference shortly after closing the vote. “The biggest challenge was to meet the vision of President Biden.”

Passage of the bill through the House was without question act one. But one may quibble with Pelosi’s assessment that moving the measure through the House was the most challenging. They had to settle on the size and scope of the bill. Pelosi tried to police the liberal and conservative wings of her caucus which had different goals for the bill. And that’s to say nothing of managing expectations about the passage of the infrastructure bill earlier this month. Pelosi finally decoupled the infrastructure plan from the social spending package. Otherwise, the social spending plan may have imploded there. 

 Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) holds a news conference about state and local tax (SALT) deductions as part of the Build Back Better reconciliation legislation at the U.S. Capitol on November 03, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

 Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) holds a news conference about state and local tax (SALT) deductions as part of the Build Back Better reconciliation legislation at the U.S. Capitol on November 03, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Democrats were very close to this drama simply being a one-act play, workshopped off-off-Broadway.

But like any good stage play, tension is supposed to build throughout the work. Act one sets everything into motion. Introduces the characters – but perhaps doesn’t tell you everything about them. Plot twists always emerge down the line. And of course, there are cliffhangers! 

Act II, Scene II is regarded by most as the most dramatic scene in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” The scene teems with emotion. Duncan is murdered offstage. That only infuses the work with more drama. Think theater of the mind’s eye, here. The audience witnesses the emotional torrent between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth directly in front of them.

 Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi cheers with House Democrats after the passage of the Build Back Better Act at the U.S. Capitol on November 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

 Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi cheers with House Democrats after the passage of the Build Back Better Act at the U.S. Capitol on November 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

By the time we get to act two, the drama is building. Maturing. Developing.

And act two is the political stage traffic which lies ahead in the coming weeks. The social spending bill now moves to the Senate.

Now, to be clear, we don’t know what plot twists or cliffhangers may emerge in the Senate. But there are sure to be a few. The Senate is 50/50. Democrats need all 50 of their senators to stay on board so they can pass the bill – with a 51st, tiebreaking vote cast by Vice President Harris.

What will Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., demand? Did Sen. Kirsten Sinema, D-Ariz., say anything? At all? Is the bill too moderate for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.?

Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., didn’t hide her scorn for the measure as she cast the proxy votes for fellow Republicans opposed to the social spending package on the House floor. As Cammack took the microphone, she characterized herself “as a member voting hell no on this bill.” She described the “Build Back Better Bill” as the “Build Back Broke” plan. 

“And good luck in the Senate,” sneered Cammack, staring directly at Pelosi atop the dais.

The Senate must mold and alter the bill to appeal to the wants of 50 Democratic senators. Senate Republicans will prep all sorts of damaging amendments to the bill to cast Democrats’ intentions in the worst possible light. Expect GOP amendments to the bill on gasoline and home heating costs. Immigration and environmental policy. Tax hikes. Anything to get Democrats on the record as supporting something controversial. 

Or – even blowing up the bill entirely. 

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The drama in the Senate – and act two – may be worthy of Shakespeare. Things are so intense that they may not even need a murder offstage like the demise of Duncan to top the tension of Macbeth.

Let’s imagine for a moment that the bill escapes the Senate – reasonably intact – for Democrats. The final Senate product will inevitably be different from what the House passed last week. That means that the House and Senate aren’t aligned. So, the bill must return across the Capitol Rotunda to the House to sync up.

That takes us to act three. 

Pelosi said the hardest part was just shaping the bill into a passable form in the House and then lugging it to passage there. 

The measure heads to the House in late December or early January. And, many longtime political observers aren’t shy to point out that passing in the House the second time may take longer than that. 

One wonders if the deep schisms between moderate and progressive Democrats will reemerge. The sides achieved détente to approve the infrastructure and social spending plans earlier this month. But tempering expectations and keeping the internecine fighting offstage (remember what we’ve said about things happening offstage) could prove to be Pelosi’s most daunting barrier yet. 

Like any good play, expect denouement. Showmanship. And perhaps, even a climax.

Again, this presumes that House Democrats are finally able to pass a bill. And, the House pretty much must accept whatever the Senate OKs later this month. The House must approve the same bill for both bodies to align. Only then can the bill go to President Biden for his signature.

Our play would end there if we were performing on Broadway or performing in London’s West End. But American politics is a bigger stage than that.

After all, this is a drama in four acts.

Republicans have taken to the airwaves for months to excoriate Congressional Democrats and President Biden for even trying to advance a measure of this magnitude. They’ve railed against the climate provisions. Possible immigration language. Tax policy. Inflation. And just the overall cost.

Once (and if) the bill becomes law, Republicans will only amplify those arguments. Democrats may face the enviable challenge of selling the bill to the public. Even so, some Democrats concede that whatever Congress passes won’t resonate with the voters politically. The die may already be cast on this bill. Whether Democrats pass the measure or not may not matter to voters.

Republicans will weaponize this bill in the coming months.

This brings us to act four:

Next year’s midterm elections.

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