“We are reformers in the spring and summer, but in autumn we stand by the old. Reformers in the morning, and conservers at night.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
“I want to do business with the president, but he needs to be a moderate.” – Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, 9 August 2021

This was President Biden’s best week – and he has had many good ones – since the passage of the American Rescue Plan in March. The Senate cleared a US$1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. And within hours passed – but this time on a straight party-line vote of 50-49 – a US$3.5 trillion budget blueprint for the American Families Plan, which will cover education, health care, children and seniors, and climate. It is the biggest package of domestic policy commitments since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960s and it rivals Frank Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933. And then, with the Senate still sitting after these all-night gyrations, Republicans refused to stop filibustering and take up legislation expanding access to the polls, such as early voting and easy voting registration. But in that defeat of an urgent legislative priority for Democrats may yet be the seeds of ultimate victory.

The passage of the infrastructure bill was the most pleasing for Biden. It vindicated what is in his bones: that you can – and should – do business across the aisle in the Senate. He has believed in that all his political life, beginning from when he entered the Senate in 1973. Biden was never dissuaded from practising bipartisanship, even when he was pilloried just two years ago during a Democratic presidential debate by then-Senator Kamala Harris for doing business with Southern segregationists.

Politicians are known for talking, and talking, and talking some more. Biden was like that – but he always knew better. And that knowledge paid off big time this week. As he said in the White House on Tuesday:

‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t kid, because I was just reading about 50 statements from very serious press people about how I — my whole plan was “dead” from the beginning.
Look, the lesson learned is being willing to talk and listen. Listen. Call people in.’
Question from the press: ‘Mr. President —'
President Biden:
‘No, no, let me finish it. And I think the lesson learned is exposing people to other views. And so, that’s why, from the beginning, on all the subjects you raised, I’ve sat with people and listened to their positions, some in agreement with where I am and some disagreement. And so, I think it’s a matter of listening. It’s part of democracy.’

You can get more done as president when you listen.

This week crystallised what is in play from now until Christmas.

Summer in Washington is over. The wars of autumn cometh.

Here is what is in play:

  • The House now has to pass its version of the budget resolution blueprint for the big wave of Biden programs for families, education and climate. Again, this sets targets and headline goals. The House and Senate versions then must be matched up and approved in the same form.
  • When that job is done, the Senate and House will then write and vote on the reconciliation bills that translate the budget resolutions into hard-and-fact legislation. This is where specific improvements on Obamacare, education funding, jobs and income security, childcare and climate change are written. And this is where how these programs are paid for is written. It is in these bills where all these new taxes – including a potential tax on imports from high-carbon countries like Australia – will be written.
  • The House and Senate then have to pass these reconciliation bills – and then re-craft them to make them identical – and then repass them one last time to make them law.
  • At the same time, the federal government’s financial year ends 30 September and government funding for all the agencies of government needs to be agreed on and passed in both Houses. If those agencies are not funded in time, large parts of the government will shut down.
  • And at the same time, the United States is hitting the legal limit of its US$28 trillion of debt obligations that must be financed. If the debt limit is breached, the United States would default – with horrific implications for markets worldwide.

So Washington faces autumn filled agony, with no assurance of ecstasy. Throughout these battles, the Senate is tied at 50-50 and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has only a three-vote margin in the House. There are virtually no votes to spare.

Pelosi has said she will not take up the Senate’s infrastructure bill until she sees the Senate has passed its reconciliation bill with all the big Democratic agenda programs in it.

Outside the infrastructure bill, Republicans have no interest in providing any votes for any other Biden legislation. They oppose the ‘$3.5 trillion radical Democratic tax-and-spend’ agenda. They have no interest in owning any of the debt limit extension; as the Democrats are running up all this extra debt, it’s their problem they say. Several moderate Democrats in both the House and Senate are uneasy about the US$3.5 trillion price tag they are being asked to support.

Democratic progressives in both chambers are getting more and more restless over the failure to pass voting rights, gun control, police reform and more social justice reforms. They want the filibuster repealed so that what Democrats can pass in the House does not die in the Senate. But there are not 50 Democratic Senators ready – yet – to do that.

The fate of all this legislation, and Biden’s presidency, are intertwined. Next year is all about the mid-term elections in November. The last five presidents have each lost their majorities in the House and Senate. Their political opponents oppose, with their highest objective being to stop the president from governing.

Can Biden defy this historical pattern?

For Democrats to hold Congress, they must show they can govern – and can deliver for the American people.

For Biden, there is one imperative: to get as much done now as he possibly can. And to listen intently to the voices on the Hill as he makes, together with Nancy Pelosi in the House and Chuck Schumer in the Senate, the tactical decisions that will make the difference between political life and death.