In a histrionic coda to the bill’s tumultuous stay in the House, the Californian Republican held court for more than eight hours — seeking to push the vote late into the night with a meandering and repetitive filibuster-style speech. He touched on immigration, Afghanistan, his own life story and repeatedly hit Biden for high gas prices and inflation, and mixed in personal attacks on Pelosi as his voice began to get hoarse in the early hours of the morning. McCarthy was using the privilege of party leaders to speak for an unlimited time. But Democrats, who branded the stunt a “tantrum,” pushed back the vote until Friday morning and many of their members left, leaving the Republican leader to churn on.
“He wants to do it in the middle of the night. We’re going to do it in the light of day,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said just after midnight. A senior House Democratic aide added: “Leader McCarthy is welcome to continue his raving as late into the night as he wants. The House will return and vote first thing Friday morning so the American people know heading into Thanksgiving week that House Democrats are fighting with President Biden to Build Back Better.”
The bitterness and sense of chaos in McCarthy’s speech epitomized the turmoil that has raged around the Build Back Better bill for months. In fact, the spectacle of Democrats squabbling over its size has obscured for the public much of what’s in the package. And while it represents a cornerstone of Biden’s agenda and is intended to ease economic troubles facing millions of Americans, polls show that many voters believe the President is not addressing the nation’s most important issues at a time of rising inflation and high gasoline prices.
Uncertain fate in the Senate
The bill has threatened at times to rip the Democratic Party apart, has survived several brushes with extinction and may still doom some threatened lawmakers in the midterm elections if it passes.
If it eventually makes it through the Senate, where Democratic leaders are targeting a final vote before the end of the year, the measure will enhance Biden’s claim for a place alongside some of his party’s most significant social reformers. It would also be a signature achievement for Pelosi, potentially even outranking her successful push to pass the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration, and could also be a career capstone for the country’s first female speaker if Democrats lose control of the House next year.
But it’s unclear whether the massive bill will be a political winner in the short-term. While it would validate a core premise of Biden’s case to voters last year that his years of Capitol Hill experience would help him pass big, serious, reform legislation, the bill may not address factors dragging down his presidency. Biden’s approval ratings tumbled after a rough summer that included the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, a wave of Covid-19 infections from the Delta variant after the President said the pandemic was mostly over, and the inflation spike and a surge in gas prices that is leaving many voters disgruntled as the holiday season approaches. It’s also possible Democrats have over reached by trying to pass massive, liberal, social reform bills despite not having been given a wide mandate during the 2020 elections.
Dramatic final hours
McCarthy played into such concerns in his marathon speech, warning that the measure’s “destructive policies” would hammer American workers and families and could help doom the Democrats in the midterm elections.
“It will crush American industries, it will destroy countless American jobs,” he said, comparing the bill to the passage of Obamacare in 2010, when he said he saw Pelosi “walk the Democratic members right down here and pass Obamacare and lose 63 seats.”
The dramatic final hours ahead of the bill’s likely passage underscored the perilous vote that some endangered lawmakers are taking to send it to the Senate. Moderate Democrats had waited until the Congressional Budget Office released its assessment of the impact of the measure on the deficit before agreeing to pass it. The CBO estimated that the measure would result in a net increase of $367 billion to the deficit between 2022 and 2031. The White House, however, insists that the bill will be fully paid for. It says it can make up the shortfall because the bill includes funding for better enforcement of Internal Revenue Service tax collecting.
But the CBO score represents a huge opening for Republicans who will target vulnerable House members next year with their claims that Democrats are on a “socialist” spending spree that will bankrupt future generations — notwithstanding the fact the Republican Party cared little for the deficit when Trump was President.
Republican leaders and allied groups were already seizing on the deficit question in the hours leading up to Thursday night’s anticipated vote. “Representatives Josh Gottheimer (NJ-05), Ed Case (HI-01), Stephanie Murphy (FL-07), Kurt Schrader (OR-05), and Kathleen Rice (NY-04) promised their constituents that they would not raise the deficit. If they break their word and vote for this bill, they’re betraying their constituents,” Club for Growth President David McIntosh said in a statement, for instance.
In another twist, the bill’s supporters must also overcome a wrangle over a provision that would expand a state and local tax deduction that critics — including one of the bill’s authors, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — have said is wrong and bad politics. Lifting the cap on state and local tax deductions has been a priority for members from high-tax states like New York and New Jersey, but progressives say that the plan is a giveaway to the rich. In an unusual reversal of normal political practice, some conservative Republicans are making the same argument, despite their own 2017 tax bill, which capped the deductions and gave the wealthy and corporations tax cuts.