Crunch time for Biden as Congress debates historic agenda
WASHINGTON: Joe Biden faces the most important test of his presidency this week as Democrats in the US Congress launch a highwire bid to implement his sweeping economic agenda while keeping the government’s lights on.
The House and Senate are moving towards votes on legislation dealing with infrastructure and social programs worth almost $5 trillion while averting a government shutdown on Friday and a looming debt default.
Failure on any front would be catastrophic for a president looking to cement his legacy, while Democrats would see their chances of hanging on to the House of Representatives and Senate in next year’s midterm elections severely curtailed.
“You want me to be honest? It’s going to be a week from hell. But failure is not an option. There is too much at stake,” congresswoman Debbie Dingell told CNN on Sunday.
On the line is the fate of Biden’s $3.5 trillion Build Back Better social welfare package that only Democrats support, and a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill to improve transport networks and broadband coverage that has already passed the Senate with cross-party support.
Democratic House Speaker Pelosi told colleagues that debate would start Monday on infrastructure, with a vote set to take place on Thursday — the same day Congress needs to strike a funding deal to avoid a government shutdown.
Progressive Democrats in the House have repeatedly threatened to tank infrastructure without a significant commitment from their moderate colleagues on Build Back Better.
But moderates nervous about freewheeling spending have said they may not vote for the bigger bill without infrastructure crossing the line first — and have talked about scaling back the $3.5 trillion ticket price in any case.
“The next few days will be a time of intensity,” Pelosi wrote to House Democrats, who have a three-vote margin in the House, plus the anticipated support of at least 10 Republicans for infrastructure.
Biden says getting his wish list for Build Back Better would transform the lives of ordinary Americans — making cities more livable and access to public services more equitable.
Electric cars would become more common and public transport would improve across the board, with high-speed trains replacing flights between some major cities.
The White House is also seeking expanded health care and education, reduced prescription drug prices and free day care for lower income families — amounting to savings of almost $15,000 a year for the average household.
Biden invited two dozen lawmakers from the warring center and left wings of his party to the White House last week in a bid to find common ground on the $3.5 trillion package, which would make for the largest single federal spending spree in US history.
“I’m optimistic about this week,” he told reporters on Sunday.
Adding to the drama, lawmakers have until midnight going into Friday to green-light a package to fund the government ahead of federal agencies running out of money.
Failure would shut down the government, which typically leads to hundreds of thousands of workers being sent home as public services are closed.
The House passed a “continuing resolution” last week to keep the government open until December 3 — a move supported by Republicans.
But the evenly-divided Senate is expected later on Monday to reject the package.
Republicans are opposed to a 14-month debt ceiling hike that was included in the wording following warnings that the Treasury Department will be unable to obtain new loans some time in October.
They insist that Biden’s spending plans are wildly out of control, and that the Democrats — who control both chambers of Congress — should avoid the disastrous looming credit default by lifting the borrowing cap on their own.
In reality, the debt limit hike would cover spending backed by Republicans under the administration of Donald Trump, as well as other spending already authorised by the government.
A no from the Senate on debt will most likely lead to the upper chamber sending the continuing resolution back to the House to pass without the debt-limit provision, averting the shutdown for two months.
That would leave the debt-limit problem unresolved, however — a worrying outcome that will make the markets increasingly volatile as the mid-to-late October deadline draws closer.
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