WASHINGTON — The bipartisan $600 billion infrastructure bill and the highly partisan $3.5 trillion social spending measure moving under reconciliation rules are dominating congressional debate. Some deadlines have been set with respect to each, as well as attempts to link their fates together. Other budget deadlines are fast approaching as the new federal fiscal year looms. How much spending and who pays for it continue to be Washington’s focus.

A group of 10 moderate Democrats have pressed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to schedule a floor vote on the $600 billion physical infrastructure bill. Ms. Pelosi accommodated their request by issuing a “clarification” that the transportation package will get to the House floor Sept. 27. This is part of a reauthorization requirement for transportation spending measures by Sept. 30.

Reconciliation bill

House committees with jurisdiction over parts of the $3.5 trillion spending proposal over 10 years have been instructed to complete their mark ups by Sept. 15, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has issued a similar demand to Senate committees. Among the provisions likely to be included within the general parameters of the bill are: enhanced child care and education subsidies; paid family leave; subsidies for affordable housing; and expanding Medicare to include dental, hearing and vision benefits. Most of these elements likely could be included in a reconciliation bill. Many members of Congress also would agree with the value of doing some of these things at least to some degree.

The so-called Byrd Amendment, however, bans non-budgetary language from a reconciliation measure. This would seem to prevent inclusion of some of the measures supported by the progressive wing of the Democratic party, like new climate-change regulations or a pathway to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

A potentially larger roadblock to these ambitions has emerged. Assuming that no Republican would vote for a $3.5 trillion bundle of social measures and accompanying tax increases, the Democrats must hold all 50 of their Senate votes so that Vice President Kamala Harris, as President of the Senate, could cast the tie-breaking vote. On Sept. 2, one of those Democratic Senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, stated in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “I, for one, won’t support a $3.5 trillion bill, or anywhere near that level of additional spending, without greater clarity about why Congress chooses to ignore the serious effects inflation and debt have on existing government programs.”

The divide within the party widened over the following days. Mr. Manchin apparently has told Democrat leaders that he would support something around $1.5 trillion but also with some policy limits like means-testing eligibility. He also reiterated his opposition to the $3.5 trillion number over the weekend, which prompted an irate Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont to say that $3.5 trillion was the bottom line, a cutback from the $6 trillion of spending he had originally envisioned.

Mr. Manchin’s stance raises new tensions around mark-up decisions in the House because Ms. Pelosi has committed the House to drafting its reconciliation measure in collaboration with the Senate. She does not want to force potentially vulnerable centrist members of her party to vote on something the Senate will not pass and jeopardize their 2022 re-election prospects.

In addition, the House budget-writing instructions authorize “only” up to $1.75 trillion in deficit spending in the 2022 budget. Spending that pushes the deficit beyond that level must be offset with spending cuts elsewhere or new revenues, including President Biden’s proposed tax increases for corporations and wealthier individuals.

Budget backdrop

Once upon a time, spending an additional billion dollars meant something. Not so much any more. A group called “No Labels” has published a table on COVID-19 relief spending. It helps put in perspective how much the pandemic has cost fiscally:

  • March 2020 CARES Act: $2.2 trillion
  • December 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act: $0.9 trillion
  • Other related 2020 spending: $0.4 trillion
  • March 2021 American Rescue Act: $1.9 trillion

This totals $5.4 trillion (although No Labels says the General Accounting Office indicates more than $1 trillion had not yet been spent by July 2021).

Spending at these levels, combined with supply-chain disruptions, generous money-supply management by the Federal Reserve and worker shortages, has contributed to an uptick in inflation. Experts disagree whether that inflationary bump is temporary or more likely to continue. It has, however, given new credence to conservatives’ concerns about the effects of rising debt levels on the American economy, on existing government programs like Medicare and Social Security and on overall national security preparedness.

All of this promises an intense — but hopefully enlightening rather than immobilizing — debate about America’s future.