A Guide to the Twisted Thicket of Bills in Congress

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You know that GIF of Donald Glover carrying a stack of pizza boxes into a room, only to freeze upon seeing that everything is on fire?

Let’s talk about Congress.

Unless you’re a congressional reporter or staff member — or, really, even if you are — you could be forgiven for wondering what is happening there this week. It’s a great big dumpster full of substantive political disagreements and cynical posturing, tangled so tightly together that it can be hard to tell which is which. And the stakes are alarmingly high.

First, there are two things Congress needs to do: fund the government by Oct. 1 and raise the debt ceiling by sometime in October. These are basic, Government 101 responsibilities, and the consequences of failure would be catastrophic. Republicans are insisting that Democrats fulfill them alone, while making that almost impossible.

Then there are two things the Democrats who control Congress want to do: pass a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill (a priority of moderate and conservative-leaning Democrats) and pass a $3.5 trillion partisan package containing much of President Biden’s domestic agenda (a priority of progressive Democrats).

The bipartisan bill is supposed to receive a vote on Monday. But it probably won’t have enough support from progressives to pass unless the partisan bill passes first. But there’s no way the partisan bill can pass that quickly. But the moderates and conservatives won’t agree to postpone the vote.

Like I said, it’s a mess. Let’s look at the four fires one at a time.

The debt ceiling

Refusing to raise the debt ceiling — a limit on how much the federal government can borrow to make expenditures that Congress has already authorized — is basically a game of chicken with the economy. If the ceiling isn’t raised in time, the U.S. can’t pay its bills, including essential obligations like Social Security benefits, military salaries and interest on existing loans.

This would be economically ruinous, and while the country has come close to doing it before, it has never happened. Congress has always acted in the end.

The particularly exhausting thing about this latest running of the exercise is that both parties acknowledge the debt ceiling must be raised — but Republicans are insisting that Democrats do it alone while simultaneously preventing them from doing so through regular procedures.

Unlike in past runnings, Republicans are not demanding anything in exchange for their support. They are simply refusing, citing their opposition to Democrats’ planned spending, even though the increase is needed to cover something else: spending that Congress has already approved. (The Trump administration’s 2017 tax cuts have contributed significantly to the debt ceiling’s being reached, and it would have to be raised even without another penny of spending by Democrats.) While the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, is arguing that it is the responsibility of the party in power to raise the ceiling, Democrats voted to do so on a bipartisan basis when Republicans were in power.

In other words, the whole thing is about political posturing. And even Republicans who have sometimes bucked the party line are playing along.

“Democrats can solve this all by themselves,” Senator Mitt Romney of Utah told reporters this week. “They have the votes to do it. Do it.”

In theory, that’s true — if Republicans don’t filibuster. But Republicans intend to filibuster, creating a 60-vote threshold in the Senate that Democrats cannot meet alone.

Democrats could avoid a filibuster by using the budget reconciliation process, but that is filled with parliamentary obstacles. In a statement on Wednesday, Representative John Yarmuth, Democrat of Kentucky and chairman of the House Budget Committee, said it would be impossible to complete it before the government defaults, and called on Mr. McConnell to allow Senate passage of a regular bill that the House passed this week.

Funding the government

Congress needs to pass legislation to extend government funding for another couple of months, until it can negotiate full spending bills for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. If it doesn’t, the government will shut down.

Unlike a debt default, this has happened before, most recently in December 2018. But it would still be deeply harmful, both to the economy and to the government’s pandemic response.

On its own, the temporary funding measure is not controversial, and in fact, it includes crucial spending — for disaster recovery, for instance — that Republicans and Democrats alike want for their states. But because Democrats packaged it with the debt ceiling increase in an effort to pressure Republicans to support that, it is caught in the crossfire.

Democrats passed the funding and debt ceiling bill in the House on Tuesday with no Republican votes, but they can’t do the same in the Senate because of the filibuster.

The bipartisan bill

About six weeks ago, the Senate approved a $1.2 trillion package (including $550 billion in new federal spending) to strengthen the nation’s physical infrastructure. The vote, after months of tortuous negotiations between the White House and lawmakers from both parties, was unusually bipartisan, with 19 Republicans joining all 50 Democrats in support.

But the House hasn’t taken it up yet, because a majority of the House Progressive Caucus won’t vote for it until the larger, partisan bill (more on that in a minute) passes. Mr. Biden and top congressional Democrats — including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader — agreed on a “two-track” strategy that ties each bill’s fate to the other’s. They settled on this as the only way to pass both, given the competing priorities of the party’s progressive and conservative wings.

I wrote about the reasoning behind that strategy last month. Ms. Pelosi had struck a deal with the conservative faction, promising a vote on the bipartisan bill by Sept. 27 if the faction would support an immediate procedural step to advance the partisan bill. Nothing has changed since then — except that Sept. 27 is in four days, and the partisan bill is nowhere near done.

Which is a problem, because if the bipartisan bill comes to the floor on Monday as promised, it will almost certainly fail.

Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the leader of the House Progressive Caucus, told Ms. Pelosi this week that more than half of her nearly 100 members remained committed to voting against the bipartisan bill before the partisan one is finished. That is more than Republican support for the bipartisan bill can realistically make up for, especially after the House minority whip, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, announced on Thursday that he would urge Republicans to vote against it.

The question now is whether Ms. Pelosi will postpone the Sept. 27 vote, infuriating the members to whom she promised it, or whether she will let it go forward and fail. (If she goes the latter route, the House could still pass the bill later.) The outcome will shape negotiations over the partisan bill.

The partisan bill

Democrats are divided over how large the partisan bill should be and what it should include. Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have said they won’t support the full $3.5 trillion that top Democrats have proposed.

Also in question is what the bill can include while remaining within the strict parameters of the budget reconciliation process, which is the key to maneuvering it around the filibuster.

The Senate parliamentarian, the chamber’s rule enforcer, decided last weekend that a proposal to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants did not meet the criteria. The Senate could overrule her, but senators who aren’t willing to dispense with the filibuster are unlikely to support an end run around the parliamentarian either.

Whatever the total cost of the bill ends up being, a wide array of Democratic priorities — universal prekindergarten, climate change mitigation, social safety net expansions and more — will be competing for inclusion. But without an understanding of how big the bill can be and still pass, it is hard for lawmakers even to get to those choices.

Mr. Biden spent Wednesday and Thursday meeting with congressional Democrats across the party’s ideological spectrum and asking holdouts like Mr. Manchin to provide a dollar amount they would support.

So far, they haven’t done so.

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