Biden's $3.5 trillion spending bill is great — but spending alone won't stop Trump's return

Passing popular programs doesn't do much for Democrats, if voters are sidelined from rewarding them at the polls

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 14, 2021 12:59PM (EDT)

Donad Trump and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donad Trump and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

With great fanfare late Tuesday, Senate Democrats announced that they have reached a semi-tentative agreement on a $3.5 trillion spending bill that would meet a large number of the priorities that President Joe Biden outlined in his address to a joint session of Congress in April. Unlike most bills, which require 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, this bill is slated to be passed through the budget reconciliation process, which only requires the votes of a simple majority.

So the bill is a true dream of how much Democrats can get done — when they're not hamstrung by the anti-democratic historical accident that is the filibuster. Here are some of the bill's best items, according to Politico:

  • Free lunch for all public school kids
  • Tax breaks for working people and parents
  • Lower drug prices
  • Clean energy incentives
  • Broadband expansion
  • Medicaid and Medicare expansions 

It is all paid for by taxing wealthy people and corporations, no less. And it's all incredibly popular stuff with voters. No doubt Donald Trump will love taking credit for all of it — starting the second he's inaugurated on January 20, 2025. Yes, even as he gets right to work with his Republican majority in Congress to take it all away. 

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Such a dire outcome is likely, no matter how many voter-pleasing goodies Democrats cram through the budget reconciliation process, for one simple reason: Voters can't reward Democrats with re-election if they aren't able to cast ballots with confidence that those ballots will be counted. 

At the same time that Senate Democrats were announcing their breakthrough bill, another, more compelling, drama was playing out in D.C. with the arrival of a few dozen Democratic state legislators from Texas who fled the state to deny Republicans, who control the legislature, the quorum necessary to pass an anti-voting bill. The Democratic legislators snuck out of the state in a mad scramble and under threat of arrest by Republicans. As Vice President Kamala Harris said, it's a show of "extraordinary courage and commitment" in the fight to protect the right to vote against an absolute wave of anti-voting laws being passed by Republicans who control statehouses across the country. 

It is also, as the Texas Democrats admitted, a futile gesture if Democrats in the Senate don't overturn the filibuster to pass a national voting rights law. 

"We can't stay here indefinitely," Democratic state Rep. Rhetta Bowers told reporters Tuesday, stressing that "we need Congress to act now" to pass federal voting rights legislation, or Republicans will eventually be able to get their anti-voting bill passed through the Texas legislature. 

The situation in Texas is just a microcosm of what Democrats across the country are facing. 

Republicans who control state governments are reacting to Trump's attempted coup after the 2020 election by passing laws that will make the next election easier to steal. As Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explained in a recent piece for the Atlantic, the "greatest threat to American democracy today is not a repeat of January 6," but that "mainstream Republicans will 'legally' overturn an election" through efforts to keep voters from the ballot box and to take over elections offices so that they can throw out any result they find unfavorable. 

It's why Republicans, who put up some half-baked efforts to stop the $3.5 trillion bill, ultimately aren't too worried about Democrats passing broadly popular bills. Their future path to victory simply doesn't go through winning over support beyond what they currently have, which is the 42-43% of American voters who are Trump-loving diehards. Bills like the Texas one — or the one in Georgia, which suppresses the vote and makes it possible for Republicans to flat-out nullify elections — set up Republicans nicely to "win" without actually winning majority support. Republicans are also poised to take back the House of Representatives in 2022 without winning a single new voter, simply by gerrymandering new seats in states like Texas.  

Facing not just the end of his own party, but the destruction of American democracy, Biden sounded the alarm again Tuesday in a speech in Philadelphia, calling the anti-voting moves a "21st-century Jim Crow assault" and "unrelenting." Speaking to Republicans who are using Trump's Big Lie as cover to justify these attacks on democracy, Biden asked plaintively, "Have you no shame?"

The answer, as one hopes Biden has learned by now, is that no, they have no shame. There is only a will to power. Republicans are steadfast in their authoritarian march to permanent one-party minority rule and getting Trump back into the White House. They believe, correctly, that they need no more than their rock-solid 42% support to get there, so long as Senate Democrats allow the filibuster to stand, so that voting rights bills have no chance of being put up for a majority vote in Congress. 

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As has been noted ad infinitum, most Democrats in the Senate understand the dire nature of this situation and are willing to end or at least seriously reform the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation. But two Democratic senators, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have decided that they value the filibuster over voting rights, democracy, and even, in Sinema's case, an opportunity to get re-elected. Those two are needed, however, so that Democrats have enough votes to end the filibuster. So unless they wise up and change their minds, the future is looking quite gloomy indeed. (Manchin, at least, has agreed to meet with the Texas Democrats who are trying to save democracy and hear them out.) 

Without that, all that Biden and the other, more sensible Democrats have left is this hope that, by passing popular and generous bills like this $3.5 trillion package, they will get enough grateful voters to overcome the GOP assault on voting rights. But that plan is almost certainly bound to fail, for a couple of reasons. First, that 42% of voters that Republicans feel is enough to steal elections is immoveably loyal to the GOP. These folks don't care, for instance, about Biden's efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden's vaccination push has reduced the daily caseload and death toll by several factors and allowed most people's lives to return to normal, which should be a huge political victory. But Biden's approval ratings haven't budged over 55%, where they were when he took office. Instead, huge percentages of Republican voters are refusing to get the vaccine, preferring to get sick and risk death than let Biden have a political win. 

"Do popular things and win over voters" is the sort of advice that sounds like common sense, and in a sane demoracy, it would work. But ours is not a sane democracy. Ours is a nation in thrall to an authoritarian minority that worships a man who attempted to overthrow the U.S. government. That 42% is more worried about imaginary threats like "critical race theory" or "Dr. Seuss getting canceled" than they are real threats, like COVID-19. Those folks don't have a majority and probably never will, but it doesn't matter, so long as Republicans can continue passing laws on the state level that gut the right of Americans to free and fair elections.

Texas Democrats are right: America is running out of time.

Unless the filibuster is ended and democracy reform is passed, it doesn't really matter how many awesome spending bills are passed. You can't be rewarded by voters at the ballot box if the ballot box doesn't matter anymore. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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