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Which Democratic Priorities Will Make It Through Congress This Fall?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): With Congress fully back in session, Democrats are once again in the business of legislating. This fall, they’re trying to push through a number of ambitious policies, including both the bipartisan Senate infrastructure bill and their ambitious $3.5 trillion (for now) spending plan, which they’ll most likely pass via budget reconciliation. 

But that’s not all. Democrats have also said they’ll try to pass a bill on voting rights and, in light of the Senate parliamentarian’s decision to exclude a pathway for citizenship for immigrants from the upcoming reconciliation bill,  will continue to push on this front, too. And, of course, looming over all this is the possibility of a government shutdown — there are just eight days before the government potentially runs out of money — as well as an impending fight around raising the nation’s debt limit (Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he and Senate Republicans will refuse to raise it).

So we’re taking a step back today to assess just how likely each of these proposals are to pass Congress, what we think might end up in them if they pass and how Americans feel about them.

Let’s start with the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. What do we make of its chances of passing?

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lee.drutman (Lee Drutman, senior fellow at New America and FiveThirtyEight contributor): A $3.5 trillion bill probably has 0 percent chance of passing. A $2.5 trillion bill, on the other hand, has a much better chance of passing.

This is all part of a negotiation process, some of which is taking place in public, but most of which is taking place in private. Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have said they can’t vote for a bill this big. But there’s still plenty of room to trim, and Manchin and Sinema and other moderates can say they got a victory if they reduce it. The fact is $3.5 trillion has an anchoring effect that makes $2.5 or $2 trillion seem reasonable. 

This is a classic bargaining strategy.

alex (Alex Samuels, politics reporter): I agree with Lee. I feel like it will pass, but I’m almost certain it won’t cost $3.5 trillion. I say that because, once again, it seems like progressive and moderate Democrats are at an impasse about the price tag associated with the bill and members are essentially talking past each other. 

The reason why I think it still passes, though, is because it’d be a pretty humiliating defeat for President Biden if it didn’t. I know there are a lot of threats being thrown around from both progressive and moderate Democrats, but I want to think that the glue holding everyone together is that no one wants to harbor blame for tanking Biden’s agenda — and there’s a lot on the line here. So it’s likely not everyone is going to be happy, but maybe out of a shared sense of not wanting everything to fail, Democrats will find a way to figure this out?

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nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): Agreed. Manchin — who, of course, is one of the crucial moderate swing votes that Democrats need to convince in order to pass their agenda — has said that $3.5 trillion is too much and has called for a “pause” on the legislation (presumably so it can be pared down to a number he feels better about). 

The flip side of this, though, is that some progressives — such as Rep. Pramila Jayapal — have said they won’t vote for anything smaller than $3.5 trillion. Their preference is closer to $6 trillion, so they already see the $3.5 trillion number as a compromise.

So the question is, who blinks first? And if no one blinks, there goes Biden’s signature domestic legislation. For that reason, I agree with Alex that the Democrats will figure out a way to make it work.

alex: Yeah, considering how underwater Biden’s approval rating is now, I think there’s a need for the Democrats to succeed in passing this, showing they can be effective leaders.

sarah: Right, because to Alex’s original point — no Democrat wants to be responsible for sinking this, moderate or progressive. So it seems as if we have consensus here — you all think some version of this bill will pass eventually, just not necessarily at its current price tag.

Do we have a sense yet for what will actually make it into this bill? And whether some proposals are more popular than others?

lee.drutman: I think the things that get cut are the things that the moderates will want to fight for. For instance, if Sinema opposes pricing reforms to prescription drugs and wants to make that a key issue, it’s likely that it will be struck from the reconciliation bill.

alex: I’m using a July AP-NORC survey to answer to your second question, Sarah, but it seems like while things like funding for roads, bridges and ports are pretty popular, some additional things that might be tackled in Democrats’ solo bill weren’t quite as popular — especially among Republicans.

While about two-thirds of Americans surveyed (67 percent) said they support funding for affordable housing, just 41 percent of Republicans do, compared to 85 percent of Democrats. There is also a pretty large gap in support for free community college tuition, with 27 percent of Republicans in favor versus 76 percent of Democrats. And of the 12 topics AP-NORC asked about, both Republicans and Democrats were least in favor of things like funding for electric vehicle charging stations (23 percent and 64 percent, respectively) and funding for passenger and freight rail services (37 percent and 68 percent). 

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nrakich: I’m not sure that what is popular with the public is going to determine what stays and what goes, though. To Lee’s point, it’s all about what’s palatable to these moderate senators. And sometimes, they are reluctant to pass things — like a higher minimum wage — that are nevertheless broadly popular with the public. 

It’s interesting to think about why that is: Are they misreading the electorate? Are they trying to satisfy their donors? Do they just genuinely oppose liberal fiscal policy?

sarah: But as Democrats jockey back and forth on this party-line reconciliation bill, does that put their bipartisan infrastructure bill in jeopardy at all? 

Asking because the bipartisan bill actually passed the Senate in August, but Democrats in the House won’t vote on it until this other bill is ready, although as we saw with moderates in the House, appetite for this strategy might be waning among some Democrats.

nrakich: Yes, that bill is in danger too — and we’ll have an answer pretty soon. House Democratic leaders have said they will put the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill to a vote on Sept. 27 — contrary to the wishes of progressives who didn’t want to vote on it until after the $3.5 trillion bill was resolved. The question now is whether progressives follow through with their threats to vote against the infrastructure bill if they don’t get their way. 

alex: I agree that the infrastructure bill is probably in danger now, too, because as Nathaniel said earlier, a lot of this comes down to who blinks first. And it seems like the biggest bargaining chip progressive Democrats have right now is threatening to tank the infrastructure bill.

nrakich: If you look at how often House Democrats have voted in line with Biden’s position so far this year, all but one Democrat has done so at least 89 percent of the time. 

That’s why I think if push comes to shove, even progressive Democrats will hold their nose and vote for the infrastructure bill. House leadership probably wouldn’t be holding this vote next week if they didn’t believe it would pass.

Maybe a few progressives will vote against it out of protest, but I bet it will be just few enough that the bill still passes (perhaps with the support of a few moderate Republicans too?).

lee.drutman: I agree with Nathaniel. Progressives have actually moved the needle quite a bit, and my guess is they understand that. A lot of this is about positioning for the future.

Progressives will vote against it only if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t need their votes. It’s also possible multiple votes fail before a deal is reached.

sarah: It’s also possible the government runs out of money … throwing any talk of passing either this infrastructure bill or the other one on the backburner, no?

As I said at the outset, there are just eight days before the government potentially runs out of money — and Republicans don’t seem likely to pass Democrats’ short-term government funding bill.

What are the risks Democrats face with the possibility of the government running out of money and Republicans also refusing to raise the nation’s debt limit? Does this potentially undermine Democrats’ larger legislative goals?

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lee.drutman: I think a government shutdown is quite likely. I would guess both sides see it in their interest because it sharpens the differences.

nrakich: Really, Lee? That’s interesting. I feel like a government shutdown with Democrats in full control of the federal government would be quite embarrassing for them.

sarah: Yeah … it certainly didn’t go well for former President Donald Trump and Republicans in 2019 when they played the government shutdown game

nrakich: Exactly, Sarah. And during that shutdown — and the one in 2013 — Democrats presented themselves as the responsible, anti-shutdown party. It would be quite the 180 for them to now allow one. 

lee.drutman: But there’s the short-term and the long-term aspect. The 2022 midterms are still a ways off, and the Republican strategy is to obstruct, obstruct, obstruct, and make Biden seem like a failure, while the Democratic leadership’s strategy is to get the moderates to see that Republicans are unwilling to compromise — maybe even convincing moderates to agree to get rid of the filibuster.

I think McConnell is trying to triangulate here — that is, show just enough willingness to compromise so as not to provoke Manchin and Sinema into abolishing the filibuster — but not so much as to actually help Democrats.

nrakich: Wow. That seems like a very high-risk, high-reward strategy. Do you think the demise of the filibuster is really that important to institutionalist Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Pelosi? And for that matter, what about Biden, who still (publicly, at least) opposes ending the filibuster

alex: I’m super, super skeptical, since there’s never been widespread support among Democratic lawmakers, let alone the public, to end the filibuster. Late last month, we found that public attitudes on filibuster reform barely budged even when voting rights were on the line, so I’m not super confident there’s an appetite for reforming it for any of Democrats’ other priorities. 

lee.drutman: It’s all part of the long game, though. If Biden is going to abolish the filibuster — or at least reform it — it has to be at the end of a process where he can say he’s changed his mind because of Republican obstructionism. Same for Manchin.

sarah: The one thing I find interesting around the impending fight over government funding is that this crisis over the government spending too much money isn’t new. In fact, Republicans racked up a significant amount of spending debt under the Trump administration — America’s debt rose by almost $7.8 trillion during Trump’s presidency. But as FiveThirtyEight contributor Dan Cox wrote earlier this year, it’s possible voters won’t factor that into the current fight over the debt ceiling and will instead blame Biden/Democrats for big spending proposals.

That’s why it seems as if the fight over the debt limit comes at an especially difficult time for Democrats. Do we know how Americans feel about government spending now?

nrakich: Americans are happy to spend lots of money on things they want. Quinnipiac found that 62 percent of Americans favored the $3.5 trillion spending bill on social programs such as child care, education and Medicare expansion. That poll notably mentioned the price tag, which not every poll asking about the budget bill does. 

alex: And it doesn’t seem like the price tag of the bill is turning off voters the same way it is for moderate Democrats. An August HuffPost/Data for Progress survey, which tested three hypothetical spending amounts, found that support — regardless of the price tag — was almost the same. Over 60 percent of respondents in each group said they supported the proposal by about a 2-to-1 margin regardless of whether pollsters said the bill would cost $1.5 trillion, $2.5 trillion or $3.5 trillion.

lee.drutman: For Democrats, I think the far more consequential bill for the midterms and for the 2024 presidential election is their latest attempt to pass sweeping voting rights legislation, the Freedom to Vote Act.

I’m just not convinced government spending is going to move many voters in the midterms. Republicans are going to accuse Democrats of spending too much money no matter what.

We’re at a very strange point in our politics in which the connection between policy and election outcomes is very tiny. The fundamentals have always been more important than policy, but now that’s true more than ever before, given just how few voters are changing their minds. For instance, despite all that happened between 2016 and 2020, the 2020 presidential election saw the smallest share of voters who changed which major party they voted for, going back to at least the 1948 and 1952 presidential elections.

sarah: Lee brought up one of Democrats’ other big priorities this fall: passing a voting rights bill. Alex, Nathaniel, you’ve both covered this issue a lot for FiveThirtyEight — what do you think the odds are that Democrats are going to be able to get something through Congress?

nrakich: I don’t think a voting-rights bill will pass. Even the Freedom to Vote Act — which is essentially a compromise version of H.R. 1, the For the People Act, with controversial provisions like public financing for campaigns removed or reduced — was met with a cool reception from Senate Republicans. Even moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins still felt like the bill was too much of a federal takeover of state election administration. 

So to me, it just keeps coming back to the question of ending or circumventing the filibuster. While it’s not impossible that Democrats could, say, create a voting-rights exemption from the filibuster in order to pass this bill, I don’t think it’s likely. Manchin and Sinema’s opposition seems firm.

alex: Slim to none, if I’m being honest … The Guardian reported earlier this week that the Freedom to Vote Act likely won’t move this week as Manchin is looking to shore up Republican support. But getting Republicans on board with any voting rights legislation is highly unlikely, as we’ve said before.

lee.drutman: I’m more bullish on the Freedom to Vote Act — I give it a 50-50 shot.

sarah: Why, Lee?

lee.drutman: Democrats see this as a priority. Although, of course, part of this is a performance again. That is, Manchin has to make a very public showing of trying to get Republicans on board and he has to fail.

But the dangers of a contested 2024 election are becoming more real to Democrats as Republicans continue to push baseless claims of election fraud and pass restrictive voting laws in the process

The bottom line is Biden is going to come under tremendous pressure to intervene. Democratic activists are just extremely fired up about passing a voting rights bill.

alex: I’ll admit that at one point I thought Manchin would support ending the filibuster to pass a voting bill, but now I feel less confident about that, namely because he said in April that he won’t vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster

I can’t tell which is more plausible: Democrats ending the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation or 10 Republican senators signing onto the newest bill.

nrakich: Ooh, good question, Alex.

lee.drutman: Alex — I would say the first. The second has a 0 percent chance of happening.

alex: I would say neither. ЁЯШн 

nrakich: I agree with Lee that this particular bill definitely won’t get 10 Republican votes. But I’d be curious what would happen if Democrats tried to pass, say, a stand-alone gerrymandering ban.

alex: Plus, Republicans and Democrats have different approaches to voting rights legislation, and polls do a fairly good job of capturing that. According to this Morning Consult/Politico survey from June, Democrats (70 percent) are way more likely than Republicans (32 percent) to think restricting voting access is a major threat to American democracy.

nrakich: Right, Alex — Republicans just fundamentally see voting differently from how Democrats see it. According to a Pew Research Center poll from July, 78 percent of Democrats feel that voting is a “fundamental right for every U.S. citizen and should not be restricted.” But 67 percent of Republicans believe that voting is a “privilege that comes with responsibilities and can be limited.”

sarah: OK, so it doesn’t seem as if there is consensus among you all on whether Democrats will be able to get a voting rights bill through Congress. What about immigration reform and passing a pathway to citizenship, now that the Senate budget parliamentarian has said that can’t be included in the upcoming reconciliation bill? Is that even less likely to pass Congress than the voting rights bill?

lee.drutman: I would say immigration reform is dead for now. It’s not a great issue for Democrats, especially going into the midterms, and it’s certainly not the issue that 50 Democrats are going to abolish the filibuster for.

alex: I think it’ll happen eventually, Sarah, but I’m also not sure anything will happen imminently here either because it doesn’t seem like Democrats had a concrete Plan B after the Senate parliamentarian ruled against their efforts to include immigration reform in the spending bill?

I’ve read reports that Schumer and other Democrats want to hold additional meetings with the parliamentarian to find alternative ways to include citizenship opportunities. But since there’s probably not enough Republican support to pass an immigration bill without using the reconciliation process, I think the odds are stacked against Democrats on this one, too.

nrakich: I think it has a better chance than voting rights legislation, though, if only because there’s still a chance it could pass via reconciliation.

It’s also worth noting that creating a path to citizenship for many immigrants is quite popular with the public. In an NPR/Ipsos poll from May, 66 percent said they supported it for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, and 70 percent supported it for immigrants with temporary protected status.

sarah: OK, we’ve covered a lot of ground regarding what’s at stake this fall. What are you going to be paying special attention to moving forward as Democrats try to pass big parts of their agenda?

alex: I’ll be keeping a close eye on whether there’s any movement on axing the filibuster, though I’m highly skeptical this will happen. And I’m curious to examine the bubbling tensions between progressive and moderate Democrats more. I know that’s not a specific *policy thing* to watch, but it’s still fascinating, considering a lot of media attention has been on fissures within the GOP.

nrakich: I’ll be watching the infrastructure vote in the House on Sept. 27. How many progressives will vote for it? And if most of them do, does that undercut their current claims that they won’t accept a number lower than $3.5 trillion for the reconciliation bill?

lee.drutman: I suspect we’re going to see a lot of failed votes for Democrats over the next several weeks and a lot of public bargaining and a lot of “Democrats in disarray” stories. But I’ll be watching to see what compromises senators are spelling out between the lines, and what they are not taking off the table.

I never ever bet against Nancy Pelosi.

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Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America. He’s the author of the book, “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.”

Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.