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Congress Plows Forward on Complex Legislative Agenda

Education Funds Hanging in the Balance

This blog post is written by AACTE consultant Jane West and is intended to provide updated information. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE. 

Congress Struggles to Move Forward

Since returning from the August recess Members of Congress have been scrambling to get four major pieces of legislation passed and ultimately to keep the government running. As you will recall, the big four are: a continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown, legislation to raise the debt ceiling to avoid the government from heading into default on its obligations, the bi-partisan infrastructure bill and the reconciliation bill.  Last week we reported that the four trains appeared to be moving down the track and were poised to avoid a collision after all—this week, we’re on standby.

Continuing Resolution 

Only hours before the midnight deadline on September 30, President Biden signed  into law the continuing resolution to fund the government through December 3. The stopgap measure passed the Senate with a bi-partisan vote of 65 to 35, clearing the 60-vote threshold needed for approval and making it through the House with a vote of 254-175. This comes after Republicans blocked an earlier version of the bill which included a provision to suspend the debt limit through the midterm elections in December 2022. In addition to keeping federal agencies funded at current levels through December 3, the bill includes $6.3 billion in funding for Afghan refugee resettlement and $28.6 billion for disaster relief following a spate of recent hurricanes and wildfires.

Debt Ceiling

As noted above, earlier this week Republicans blocked an attempt to suspend the debt limit until after the midterm elections in 2022. By pairing the debt limit raise with the spending package to keep the government running, Democrats had hoped to pressure Republicans into dropping their opposition to raising the debt ceiling. But, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly said it is the responsibility of the party in power—Democrat —to address the debt limit, and the GOP would not help them do so regardless of the dire warnings about the economic consequences of a default. Some suggest a default would cause a “cascading catastrophe of unbelievable proportions and damage America for 100 years.” The United States is expected to reach its debt limit on October 18. It remains to be seen how Congress will address the debt ceiling, but rest assured we will have much more to report on this in the coming weeks.

Bipartisan Infrastructure and Reconciliation

For a brief recap: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had initially promised Democrats that she would hold a vote on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill by September 27. She also pledged to approve the partisan reconciliation bill—a $3.5 trillion plan for social programs (including education)—in conjunction with the bi-partisan infrastructure bill. But moderates balked at that plan and threatened to vote against the budget resolution needed to kick-start the reconciliation process if she didn’t de-link the two bills. As part of a deal for moderates to vote for the budget last month, Pelosi agreed to bring the infrastructure bill to the floor on September 27th.  All of this appeared unlikely until last Thursday when the Speaker reported that Budget Committee would meet to package together the reconciliation recommendations from 13 other House committees on Saturday in order to get the combined measure to the Rules Committee. This set the stage for the Speaker to bring the reconciliation package and bi-partisan infrastructure bill to the floor for a vote early in the week. As the days went on the timeline was pushed for a vote on the linked bills on Thursday. The Speaker has noted multiple times that she will not bring a bill to the floor unless she has the votes to pass it. Members of Congress often refer to Speaker Pelosi as a “master vote counter” who “works the Pelosi magic” to get the votes she needs.

Negotiations went on into the late hours of the night on Thursday with Congressional leadership, senior White House officials, and Senators Manchin (D-WV) and Sinema (D-AZ) meeting together in the basement of the Senate to try and iron out a deal. The meeting was reportedly focused on establishing a framework to pay for the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package. This all comes as reports surfaced earlier in the day that Senator Manchin (D-WV) told Leader Schumer (D-NY) in July that his topline number for the reconciliation package stood at $1.5 trillion. On the other end of the Democratic party spectrum, the Congressional Progressive Caucus—composed of nearly 95 members— maintained their position that they would not vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package without a vote on the $3.5 trillion package. In an interview with CNN, Senator Manchin (D-WV) said if the progressives wanted to get their deal done they need to “elect more liberals”.

The Speaker left the negotiations Thursday after a statement was released just before the midnight hour indicating that no further votes were expected in the House that evening. But, the House would remain in recess and reconvene no later than 9:30AM on Friday—making Friday the same “legislative day” as Thursday. The final note on the Speaker’s statement: “ Members are further advised that the House is expected to complete consideration of the Senate Amendment to H.R. 3684-Infastructure Investment and Jobs Act tomorrow.”

Will the Speaker bring the bi-partisan infrastructure bill to the floor without the reconciliation package? Will the $3.5 trillion price tag on the reconciliation bill be dropped to $1.5 million to secure the vote of Sen. Manchin? If so, will the education funding in the bill survive? Education advocates are active with Congress making their case for the $9 billion for the educator pipeline and more. We may know the answers to some of these questions by the end of the day; but we are thinking next week is more likely. 

Read the full Washington Update on my website for more information. Follow us on Twitter @janewestdc and @brennan_kait.

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Jane E. West

AACTE Education Policy Consultant