© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A view of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., U.S. December 21, 2020. REUTERS/Ken Cedeno
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats who narrowly control the U.S. Congress will confront twin threats to advancing President Joe Biden’s agenda as they return to Washington from a break this week: United opposition from Republicans and bickering in their own ranks.
They need near-total unity on goals and tactics to advance Biden’s proposed $4 trillion in spending packages, after passing a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief measure in March with a maneuver that skirted Senate rules requiring a supermajority for most legislation.
An expanded child tax credit, which passed as part of that package, is one issue that could fracture their tight 218-212 majority in the House of Representatives and shakier 50-50 split in the Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote.
Progressives are staging a power-play to make the one-year expansion permanent, but some moderate Senate Democrats have raised concerns.
“It’s about seizing the moment. The moment is now,” said Democratic Representative Rosa DeLauro, chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and one of a sizeable band of liberals who have rejected Biden’s compromise offer of extending the expanded child tax credit only through 2025.
History explains DeLauro’s sense of urgency: The next congressional election is less than 18 months away and typically a president’s party loses seats in the midterm vote after taking office. If Republicans recapture a majority in either chamber of Congress, they could block Biden’s agenda.
Indeed, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell last week told reporters in his home state of Kentucky that is his goal.
“One hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration,” McConnell said.
House Republicans, meanwhile, have their own fight ahead this week as they vote on whether to remove Representative Liz Cheney from leadership for her rejection of former President Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud.
‘DEFICITS AND COSTS’
Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that the one-year expansion of the credit will cost $110 billion.
Progressives argue a permanent extension will ease the cost to taxpayers by helping move poor families, especially minorities, off of some government supports. They also indicated a willingness to consider other offsets of costs.
Still smarting from Senator Bernie Sanders’ failed effort to include a hike in the federal minimum hourly wage to $15 in the March bill, progressives see many of the same moderate senators as a likely roadblock on the tax credit.
Democratic Senator Tom Carper said he needed to study the proposal but expressed money worries, saying, “I always think about deficits and costs…it’s part of my DNA.”
Likewise, Senator Jeanne Shaheen said, “We need to take a look at how the child tax credit does this year and make sure we’ve got some data to support the fact that it’s going to benefit the kids.”
The extension will be just one of many policy fights Democrats will have to work out in coming months as they agree on which measures to tuck into Biden’s sweeping spending bills.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he knows Republicans might decide to again sit on the sidelines and watch Democrats struggle to pass Biden’s agenda on their own.
That would necessitate using “budget reconciliation,” which temporarily suspends the 60-vote super-majority required to advance most legislation in the 100-member Senate. The tactic was used to propel Biden’s first COVID-19-relief package to victory. For it to work, every one of the 50 Senate seats controlled by Democrats must vote together.
That is what progressives such as Senator Sherrod Brown urged.
“Few times in history do we have an opportunity like this and we need to seize it,” Brown told reporters.