Democrats Haggle Over How to Trim Reconciliation Bill

'We’re still talking about a couple of trillion dollars, but it’s much less.'

The House is in tonight to approve legislation raising the debt limit by $480 billion, which is expected to last through December 3. Senators approved the measure last week after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to a short-term plan to avert economic disaster.

Build Back Better

Democrats are negotiating how to pare down President Joe Biden’s sweeping $3.5 trillion social spending package, as centrist Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema call for a smaller price tag.

“In order to pass both the Build Back Better Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill on time, it is essential that difficult decisions must be made very soon,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told members in a letter yesterday. 

Biden’s $3.5 trillion proposal would include climate change provisions, two years of tuition-free community college, and universal prekindergarten, among other items. Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, has said repeatedly that he is not willing to support anything more than $1.5 trillion—pushing Democrats to cut the plan by more than half.

Democratic leaders are considering how to cut costs, including moving up the expiration dates of new programs and setting stricter income parameters for who can qualify. But they are also weighing which priorities should be pursued and which can be removed altogether. Pelosi said in her letter Monday that “overwhelmingly, the guidance I am receiving from Members is to do fewer things well so that we can still have a transformative impact on families in the workplace and responsibly address the climate crisis.”

Congressional Democrats have to be almost completely unified in the House, where they only hold a slim majority, and they cannot afford to lose any support in the evenly divided Senate. 

Pelosi said this morning that she is “very disappointed that we’re not going with the original $3.5 trillion, which was very transformative.” She emphasized her priorities are to focus on expanding health care access, addressing climate change, and childcare provisions.

“We’re still talking about a couple of trillion dollars, but it’s much less,” she told reporters.

To pass the bill over Republican opposition through the budget reconciliation process, Democrats have to be almost completely unified in the House, where they only hold a slim majority—and they cannot afford to lose any support in the evenly divided Senate.

The talks also hold a bipartisan infrastructure package in the balance: Progressives in the House are refusing to support the bill, which passed the Senate earlier this year, until Senate Democrats move on the broader social spending measure. 

Pelosi has set a new deadline of October 31 for passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The legislation includes more than $550 billion in new spending for roads, bridges, airports, and broadband.

She said this morning she’s optimistic “that we will get to where we need to be in a timely fashion.”

War Powers Reform

As we wrote last week in Uphill, Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern and Michigan Republican Rep. Peter Meijer have introduced legislation aiming to redirect some of the war powers currently exercised by the executive branch back to Congress. My coworker Ryan Brown took a more detailed look at the proposal for us this week:

The U.S. Constitution grants the power to declare war and “raise and support” an army and navy to the legislative branch, not the executive. But in recent decades, war powers have shifted more and more to the president—leaving some of the most important decisions the country’s leaders face to the White House, sometimes without consultation with members of Congress. 

Even when Congress tries to reassert its war powers or legislate against a president’s decision to engage in hostilities, rarely are lawmakers able to mount a veto-proof majority in either chamber, meaning the president ultimately gets what he wants. Just look to the Trump years: As Soren Dayton of Protect Democracy points out, Congress tried to rebuke decisions by the former president several times over the course of 2019 and 2020, but members were thwarted by a veto each time such legislation passed. 

These rebukes included, among other measures, legislation to prohibit unauthorized hostilities against Iran, end American involvement in the Yemen war, and to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Meijer, an Iraq war veteran, discussed the reform legislation in an interview with The Dispatch last week.

“These are not powers that Congress is writing for itself, they’re powers Congress is taking back that had been fundamentally eroded and ceded to the executive over the last several decades,” he said.

The National Security Reforms and Accountability Act (NSRAA) addresses three distinct areas the bill’s supporters argue are ripe for abuse by presidents: war powers, arms exports, and national emergencies. 

The war powers portion focuses on limiting the president’s power to declare war and send troops to different parts of the world. For example, it shortens the termination clock under the original War Powers Resolution of 1973 from 60 days to 20 days. This deadline is the amount of time a president can conduct hostilities without congressional approval. So, if Congress never gives approval for hostilities a president has already commenced, the president would be legally required to terminate the military actions in question after 20 days under McGovern and Meijer’s proposal. 

Speaking of “hostilities”—that somewhat vague term is actually given a definition in this legislation. In the War Powers Resolution, the term was given no real parameters, causing many parts of the resolution to be rendered ineffective. The legislation defines hostilities as “any situation involving any continuous or intermittent use of lethal or potentially lethal force” by or against U.S. forces and, in some cases, other forces involved with the U.S. military. The definition includes hostilities carried out on “land, sea, air, space, or cyber operations, or through any other domain, including whether or not such force is deployed remotely.”

The expansive definition was designed to block the White House from using loopholes or narrow definitions to circumvent the law.

“Both bills define hostilities clearly and with enough breadth to include virtually all military actions, removing one of the ways presidents have routinely dodged congressional authorization,” Dayton, a war powers expert, wrote

The legislation also takes aim at authorizations for the use of military force. Presidents from both parties have relied on authorizations for military force that were passed in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, to conduct anti-terror wars and operations around the world for nearly two decades.

Lawmakers have long debated how to replace those outdated authorizations, but disagreements over how to define geographic boundaries and which adversaries to name have hampered various bills over the years. Members of Congress have also shied away from having to take new unpopular votes on whether to send American troops to war. The war powers reform bill requires all authorizations to have clearly stated objectives and targets, and it would require a two-year expiration date—meaning lawmakers would continually have to weigh in on wars instead of dodging uncomfortable votes.

“I’m sure there are some who don’t want to cast a hard vote,” Meijer said. He added that some lawmakers would prefer for wars to be on autopilot “so that they can be blameless with however it turns out. But, that’s not how I view my role.” 

The legislation would also automatically cut funding for military operations if a president does not receive proper congressional authorization. 

Another goal of the legislation is to give Congress more authority over arms sales. All arms sales are currently approved automatically unless lawmakers pass a resolution with veto-proof majorities to block a given sale. This bill would flip that around, requiring Congress to approve of sales of certain weapons over a certain amount. 

The bill would require authorization for sales of air-to-ground munitions, tanks, armored vehicles, fixed and rotary manned and unmanned aircraft, or services and training worth $14 million or more. It would also require approval for sales of firearms and ammunition worth $1 million or more.

The legislation would also curb presidential powers related to national emergencies. There are 39 national emergencies currently on the books. When he was in office, former President Donald Trump used national emergency powers to divert military funds to the construction of a wall along the southern border. 

Lawmakers from both parties decried this use of presidential authority, but an effort to block it failed to gain enough support to override Trump’s veto.

Under the bill, Congress would have to affirmatively approve a national emergency declaration, or it would terminate in 30 days. Emergencies would also have to be renewed each year and max out after five years.

Proponents of the legislation are hoping the United States’ painful withdrawal from Afghanistan will emphasize the need for war powers reform despite lawmakers’ reluctance to address the problem. 

“It’s evidently clear from what’s happened in the last few months that the apparatus is broken,” Meijer said of the coalition departure from Afghanistan. “The oversight and accountability is broken.” 

If the bill’s reforms had already been in place, he said, “Frankly, I don’t think we would have arrived at where we are these last few months.” 

When asked why the American people should trust a seemingly broken Congress with these powers, Meijer answered: “I am in no way shape or form sanguine on Congress acting responsibility, but I think the place where we are right now is congressional incompetence is excused, it’s accepted, and it’s given a pass.”

“That is an unsatisfactory position,” Meijer said. “The way you force somebody to improve isn’t to take more things off their plate if you think they can’t handle it. It’s to give them the responsibility that they should have, and when they fail to live up to them, hold them to account.” 

On The Floor

The Senate is out this week. The House is in briefly tonight to approve the debt ceiling hike.

Key Hearings

  • The House Veterans Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on violent domestic extremist groups and the recruitment of veterans on Wednesday morning. Information and livestream here.

  • The House Financial Services Committee’s task force on artificial intelligence will hold a hearing on ethics in AI tomorrow at noon. Information and livestream here.

  • Government officials and experts will testify on the future of weather forecasting before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on Thursday morning. Information and livestream here.

  • A House Financial Services subcommittee will hold a hearing Thursday at noon on how an increasingly cashless society hurts disadvantaged people. Information and livestream here.

Not Sure What This Is About, but We’re on the Edge of Our Seats

 

Of Note

Capitol Police whistleblower delivers scathing rebuke to 2 of its senior leaders Jan. 6

No. 2 House Republican refuses to say election wasn’t stolen

Several outspoken critics of Big Tech named to prominent antitrust positions

Emergency funds could kick-start slow Afghan resettlement