“The idea is that these initiatives will get a good foothold in this legislation, and we can extend them,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland. “Take the child tax credit. That is something that has been in effect just a few months now, and is already making a huge difference, and is enormously popular.”
Democrats have argued for months that Americans will embrace the safety net proposals and other provisions of the legislation once they realize what is in it for them. They say that the infighting among Democrats, attacks by Republicans and focus on the procedural battles have obscured the popular aspects of the measure, explaining recent polls that have shown that most Americans do not know what is in the package. Also clouding the picture for voters, Democrats have yet to produce a final version of the legislation because of differences over cost and scope.
“I have long felt that when they see the changes and reform that really matter to them in their kitchens and in their living rooms, that changes the D.C. debate dramatically,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and the chairman of the Finance Committee.
Republicans have also reaped the rewards of lawmakers’ hesitancy to reverse popular policies that were initially put in place temporarily, such as the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. Those were ultimately extended despite deep Democratic resistance and years of fiscal battles, because enough members of Congress were reluctant to be accused of raising taxes.
Given how they fell short in their yearslong drive to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Republicans also realize that allowing Democrats to make safety net programs a reality for even a relatively brief window will make it extremely hard and politically risky to let them die.
But the legislative dynamic will be different with the safety net programs enacted for a defined period of time. In the case of the health law, which was a permanent policy change, Republicans had to assemble the votes to repeal it and repeatedly failed. With the programs in the budget bill, if Congress were to do nothing, they would merely expire, putting the onus on Democrats to find the votes to renew them.
One of the rare social support programs to be repealed was the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988, at the end of the Reagan administration, with broad bipartisan backing. It was repealed one year later, in a shockingly quick reversal.