No Way Out

“There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is — other people!”

– Jean-Paul Sartre, “No Exit” / “Huis Clos”

The latest in the interminable blame-game handoffs that are what passes for normalcy in Washington D.C. is upon us — again. And, as always, it’s everyone’s fault and no-one’s.

Due to a set of obscure rules designed originally to encourage compromise and free passage of essential legislation in the face of decades of perpetually increasing impasse, the details of the present budget debate have become obscure almost to the point of impenetrability. Leaving aside the overly confusing questions of what the rules are or whether they actually should be obscure, let’s start with what now is and proceed from there.

Yesterday, Senate Republicans blocked an omnibus bill that would have both raised the debt ceiling limit and provided a continuous resolution to keep authorizing government funding. They’re in favor of both provisions, of course; it’s a parliamentary maneuver designed to block another move by Democrats. All of this fencing is aimed at advancing each party’s political agendas.

There exists a process by which Senate Democrats can force the measures through; it’s called “Reconciliation”, and was designed specifically to serve this purpose. Each would be drafted as a separate bill; each would be voted on with a simple pass-or-fail. When Congressional Democrats in the House stop dancing about and propose them separately, they will pass. So we probably don’t need to worry about a government shutdown any time soon.

House Democrats are reluctant to do this because they’re hoping to force through their dream $3.5 trillion spending (and taxation) package under the reconciliation rules, and the letter of the rule that permits reconciliation explains that you can only do that three times per budgetary year — once for spending, once for the debt limit, and once for funding. And they’ve already rammed through a truly massive spending bill this year.

To add to the pressure, the House had, until recently, been withholding approval of the trillion-dollar infrastructure package that the Senate approved some months ago after a long and painful compromise process, on the theory that they would vote on it only together with the other spending bill. Several fringe Democrats are withholding their support on the debt limit and funding measures on the theory that they can combine them with the massive spending package and get everything they want. Republicans are refusing to consider the combination. And at least two Democratic Senators, “Coal Joe” Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) are opposed to forcing the massive spending package through despite bipartisan objections, ostensibly on the theory that anything so huge should have full support from both parties.

Today, Manchin and Sinema are meeting with President Biden in hopes of reaching a compromise on the extraordinary spending bill. They’re not expected to agree.

And the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has just announced her intention of letting the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill through separately, rather than force the government into default and shutdown by further delaying the debt limit and funding resolutions. Fringe Democrats are not expected to cooperate, including at least one in the Senate — Bernie Sanders.

It looks like a nasty impasse, and in a very real sense it is; fringe members can block passage, and in fact have promised their constituents that they will. Republicans are similarly hamstrung by promises to resist the Democrat propensity to spend excessively (by Republican standards).

Which is where Sartre comes in. (You may recall, we started with a Sartre quote.)

Each politician is forced into a range of options by the perception of their constituents. McConnell is expected to resist, so he does. Bernie Sanders is expected to be intractable, which is fortunate for him because that’s his natural inclination. Fringe House Democrats are expected to stand on principle without compromise, because their supporters are young radicals who don’t respect compromise. Pelosi is expected to represent her entire party despite the evident disunity. Nobody has any choice; nobody has free will. It is Sartre’s very definition of hell.

And yet, if things proceed as they are now poised to and Pelosi actually does release the infrastructure bill, it will pass. The debt limit will be raised and the resolution to continue funding will too. (If necessary, a Republican could break ranks. For some of them, appearing reasonable may actually earn them some votes.) All that will fail is the massive spending package, and if a compromise can be reached, that too might stand a chance.

For now, we have until Thursday, and then again the middle of October, for reason to prevail. After that point, bad things happen that can’t be undone.

Note: Unlike the earlier measure, the $3.5 trillion spending bill is designed to be stretched out over a decade, and the President insists that it’s revenue-neutral — a statement others have questioned.

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