Battle rages to pass $3.5 trillion progressive agenda

With the Labor Day holiday over and Congress returning to Washington, the rush is on to pass the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill which is the vehicle for the bulk of President Joe Biden’s progressive domestic agenda. Standing in the way are so-called “centrist” Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who are acting as the main opposition to the plan to shift the economy in a pro-people direction.

A series of marathon hearings is set to begin on Thursday in the House of Representatives, where the details of the gargantuan proposal will be worked out for a anticipated vote by the end of September. Passage in the House is expected, but the eventual bill will have to go through the Senate, where Democrats hold only a tie-breaking majority.

The sprint to assemble and pass the reconciliation package begins just as disappointing jobs numbers roll in, swathes of the country sit devastated by natural disaster, and the federal unemployment supplement and eviction moratoriums expire.

As part of their coronavirus recovery plan, Biden and top Democratic leaders have promised to raise taxes on the rich and corporations, expand Medicare coverage for dental and vision, and inject large amounts of money toward fighting climate catastrophe with clean energy credits.

The budget plan would also invest more in programs for low-income families and children, like elder care and child care. It would let the government negotiate prices on expensive drugs with manufacturers—reversing a George W. Bush era giveaway to big pharma. Further, it would tax imported carbon-based fuels and strengthen tax collection on the super rich to help cover the costs of new investments.

The reconciliation bill is the second—and largest—part of the Build Back Better agenda that Biden laid out during the 2020 election to unseat Donald Trump. A $1.2 trillion “hard” infrastructure plan passed the Senate in early August and has gone to the House for a vote.

That bill boosts federal funding for road and bridge rebuilding, delivering broadband internet to more of the country, and replacing the crumbling water pipes and other public works systems in towns and cities. It follows on the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan—earlier emergency COVID-19 response packages.

The hard infrastructure bill managed to garner some Republican support, but the progressive goals laid out in the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package is certain to face lockstep GOP opposition. To overcome their legislative blockade, unanimous Democratic support will be needed in the Senate to make the bill law because of the 50-50 tie in the upper chamber.

That’s why attention is focused on right-wing Democrats like Manchin and Sinema, who threaten to hold the budget bill hostage over complaints of cost. Manchin said last week that he would refuse to support a bill with the current price tag and told Congress to “hit pause” on the legislative process.

Climate change has not paused, however. Billions in economic damage were rung up across vast areas of the U.S. in the past week by hurricane fallout and more than a dozen people have been reported drowned in flooding in the Northeast. Fires, meanwhile, burn out of control in the West.

The jobs crisis has not paused. Numbers released last Friday by the Labor Department showed a stunning half-million fewer jobs were created in August than expected. A paltry 235,000 new positions were added to the economy vs. the 720,000 that had been expected. And as of Labor Day, nearly 11 million jobless people are seeing some or all of their unemployment benefits vanish.

The housing crisis has not paused. With the Republican-dominated Supreme Court throwing out the federal eviction moratorium, an estimated 3.5 million people could lose their homes in the coming weeks as landlords ramp up efforts to toss out tenants.

And of course, the coronavirus crisis has not paused. The delta variant is raging throughout less-vaccinated states, filling up ICUs and pushing infection numbers to their highest levels ever in places like Florida. And now, a new “mu” variant has been pinpointed that appears more resistant to vaccine antibodies.

Manchin’s outspoken reluctance to back the reconciliation package—and his refusal to kill the filibuster tactic that the GOP regularly uses to sabotage progressive legislation—has put a target on him in the eyes of some of his peers. Rep. John Yarmouth, D-Ky., who chairs the House Budget Committee, was blunt in addressing Manchin in remarks to the press over the weekend.

“If he [Manchin] just wants to tank the whole effort, he just ought to say so,” Yarmouth said. He accused Manchin of providing cover for other right-wing Democrats to also bolt and kill the budget plan. “He’s playing this game that conceivably gives other members who might be on the fence some cover.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has ordered the various House committees involved with drafting the legislation to finish their work by Sept. 15, with a final vote on the entire package before October. She is also working to short-circuit Republican efforts to sink Biden’s agenda and save Trump’s massive 2017 tax cuts for the rich from being overturned.

That GOP effort had the president himself fighting back in remarks made Friday when the dreary job numbers emerged. “For those big corporations that don’t want things to change, my message is this: It’s time for working families—the folks who built this country—to have their taxes cut,” Biden said.

Biden again pledged to raise corporate taxes to pay for initiatives like free community college, paid family leave, and an expansion of the child tax credit. “I’m going to take them on,” Biden said of the corporate class.

The White House stepped up the offensive rhetoric Tuesday with a memo to lawmakers on Capitol Hill saying they “face a fundamental choice”: either get on board with rebuilding the economy—by passing the budget package—or stand with “the wealthiest and corporations.”

Republicans, the letter said, have already made clear where their loyalties lay. Now, it’s time for all Democratic members of Congress to answer the question: Whose side are you on?

Ensuring they stand on the side of the people will require a massive effort by the democratic and labor movements to hold them to account.

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People’s World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People’s World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.

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