President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer have based the future of the entire Democratic agenda on a trick. And now many Democrats are increasingly concerned -- terrified, actually -- that the trick won't work.
Democrats have huge New Deal- and Great Society-style ambitions to pass hyper-expensive, sprawling legislation that would "fundamentally change" life in the United States, as then-President-elect Biden said last December. But unlike Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, who had enormous majorities on Capitol Hill -- around 300 seats in the House and between 65 and 75 seats in the Senate -- today's Democrats have a tiny, single-digit majority in the House and no majority at all in a Senate tied at 50-50. The only way they can pass legislation on a partisan basis, without Republican help, is to corral all 50 of their votes in the Senate and call on Vice President Kamala Harris to break a tie.
There's no way Democrats could break a Republican filibuster and gather the 60 votes needed to pass highly consequential legislation like the party's $3.5 trillion "human infrastructure" bill that would, in the words of The New York Times, "touch virtually every American's life, from conception to aged infirmity." There's also no way Democrats could eliminate the filibuster entirely with just 50 senators, since not all of them are on board for doing it.
So here comes the trick. There is a method in Senate rules for getting around a filibuster and passing a bill with a simple majority, or even a tie, plus the vice president. It is called reconciliation. The problem for Democrats is, reconciliation can only be used a limited number of times, usually once a year, and it must be done only with a budget bill -- the idea being that a minority should not be able to use the filibuster to keep Congress from passing a budget for the United States government. But it's only about the budget; to be included in a reconciliation measure, a proposal must be "germane" to the budget. It can't be just any policy whim. It must have a real budgetary impact.
But Democrats had an idea. We don't have enough votes to kill the filibuster and pass big parts of our agenda, they reasoned, so let's just throw everything into one gigantic budget reconciliation bill. We can even throw immigration reform in there. Sure, that's not what reconciliation is for. But let's just do it and see if we can get away with it. That way, we could get around the filibuster and pass a New Deal-sized bill without even controlling a majority of seats in the Senate.
Put the idea in the category of too clever by half. And now the plan is falling apart.
Some Democratic moderates in both House and Senate are uncomfortable with the $3.5 trillion figure, especially with inflation plaguing the U.S. economy. The Senate parliamentarian blocked an effort to put immigration reform in a reconciliation bill. Several Democratic senators have their doubts about getting rid of the filibuster. They don't agree on climate measures. There is a fight coming over the debt ceiling. Amid all those Democratic disagreements, all of a sudden the super-clever, let's-put-it-all-in-one-big-bill plan looks very vulnerable.
"Dems fear Biden's domestic agenda could implode," reads a Politico headline. From The Washington Post: "President Biden's governing agenda is at risk of unraveling on Capitol Hill after a mounting series of delays, clashes and setbacks that have sapped momentum from an ambitious and intricate push to deliver on long-standing Democratic policy priorities."
So now things don't look good for those big Biden plans. One word of caution, however, for Republicans who hope to see Democrats drive themselves over a cliff. At some point, if they realize they are in danger of losing everything, Democrats will probably get together and pass something, if not their pie-in-the-sky plan. They won't walk away empty-handed.
But they won't get it all, either, because of one basic fact: They don't have the votes. A president cannot be FDR, cannot be LBJ, with just 50 votes in the Senate. In the end, everything on Capitol Hill comes down to numbers, and the Biden Democrats' ambitions have always exceeded their number of votes. That won't change.
This content originally appeared on the Washington Examiner at washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/byron-yorks-daily-memo-democrats-panic.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.