For all the talk among Democrats of Biden assembling a Rooseveltian legacy, the moment was always going to come when his vast political agenda would hit the blockade of Washington’s uncompromising political math.
Recent days have chastened Democrats who dreamed of using what may be a brief two-year window of congressional power to forge the most fundamental economic and political change for a generation.
Biden had a strong start to his presidency. The country is awakening, albeit with a few economic hiccups, from a pandemic that has never been closer to ending thanks to his rollout of vaccines developed during the previous administration. He’s restored decorum to the White House, and his approval ratings are above 50% consistently – a level never reached by ex-President Donald Trump.
But the reality of a 50-50 Senate, the ideological tension in the Democratic coalition and a Republican Party transformed into Trump’s personality cult have brought Biden to a moment of truth.
His bipartisan effort to forge an infrastructure deal with Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia finally expired on Tuesday. The setback followed Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s announcement that he would not vote to outlaw filibuster rules or to pass a huge voting rights bill. Each blow put a new hole in soaring progressive ambitions that always seemed a leap ahead of reality.
Previously, Republicans – using that 60-vote filibuster supermajority rule – blocked a Democratic bid to set up a bipartisan, independent commission into the January 6 insurrection.
Swelling liberal frustration, the Washington impasse is coinciding with an aggressive push by Republicans in the states and conservative judges to cement hardline right-wing orthodoxy on access to the ballot, gun rights and abortion, which is enshrining Trump values even with a Democrat in the White House.
Suddenly a presidency built on an already-passed multitrillion-dollar Covid-19 relief plan and a vast federal jobs and families plan is looking a little shaky.
“If the second two planks don’t make it, that would be a big disappointment for the President,” former Obama administration strategist and CNN political commentator David Axelrod said on Tuesday.
Still, the overall picture is complex and not all discouraging for the White House.
The Senate did pass a bipartisan bill on Tuesday equipping US industry and the tech sector to meet the challenge from China. And a push for police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s murder may be about to deliver after tortuous bipartisan talks. Negotiators hope to announce a deal next week, a source told CNN’s Manu Raju. If it pans out, the police effort may be a sign that even in a Congress as bitterly divided as this one, patience and dogged negotiating could be a template for progress.
Where next for Biden and Schumer?
An emerging question is how much the President and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, can salvage from an agenda that was being hailed as the most fundamental reordering of the US economy and society in decades. While there are tactics, including using the budgetary device of reconciliation, to pass bills opposed by Republicans, there are no easy routes to political wins in Congress and some issues are unsuitable for such maneuvering.
The series of reversals for Democrats in Congress poses a fierce test of Biden’s powers of persuasion and the capacity for legislative improvisation that he refined over a half century in Washington. The current unpromising prospects for passing major legislation also threaten to curtail the record that Biden will take into midterm elections that are already dominating Republican tactics.
Yet at the same time, the current difficulties are not all Biden’s fault and may be manageable for a President who has both portrayed himself as pragmatic fixer of the nation’s problems – like the pandemic – but has also advanced proposals that drew comparisons to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. For instance, his infrastructure bill redefined the term, packing social and child care spending into a package normally considered as limited to transportation spending.
Many progressive Democrats advocate an almost limitless application of power to enact the most liberal agenda possible while they narrowly control the levers of power in the White House and Congress. But the President actually ran as a moderate in 2020 and his centrist appeal helped peel away some suburban voters who had previously backed Trump.
For all the declarations by progressives of a bold new political era dawning, the left wing of the party failed to amass a majority in Congress for its lofty program. And were it not for Manchin’s ability to hold a seat in a state Trump twice won with nearly 70% of the vote, Democrats would not even control the Senate. So it is not certain that a more modest legacy would spell disaster for Biden’s presidency.
While the President made no secret of his desire to rebalance the economy in favor of working Americans, the multitrillion-dollar scale of his program did surprise many observers. It’s just possible the brakes being applied by Manchin and other Democratic senators on the right of the party may spare Democrats the kind of overreach that could hurt them in the 2022 midterm elections. After all, voters last year paired a Democratic President with an evenly balanced Congress – not a combination that looked conducive to fundamental political change.
‘Time to move on’
The White House said on Tuesday that the President would keep in touch with Washington machinations from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean during a weeklong trip to the United Kingdom, Belgium and Switzerland.
Schumer has now moved to a two-track strategy on infrastructure – working with an expanded group of bipartisan senators, but also preparing for an effort to pass a bill on the issue with only Democratic votes.
Several prominent Democrats declared that the time for working with Republicans is over and it is time for the party to forge ahead with their radical, transformational agenda alone. Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, on Tuesday began the work of packaging a $2.3 trillion American jobs plan and a $1.8 trillion American families plan in a nonbinding resolution that could be passed with a simple majority with no Republican votes. Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii said she believed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, when he said he wanted to thwart Biden’s major priorities.
“I’ve been ready to move on from bipartisanship for major priorities for the Biden administration for quite a while now,” Hirono said.
That’s a position shared by many progressive Democrats. But it doesn’t change the harsh facts in the Senate. There are no guarantees that there are 50 Democratic votes for big-spending liberal legislation either. Manchin has already expressed concerns. Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona shares Manchin’s views on the filibuster and is another moderate Biden will need to keep on his side.
Other Democrats, like Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, who has a tough reelection bid next year, could expose themselves politically by backing multitrillion-dollar liberal spending bills easily misrepresented by Republicans as a massive “socialist spending spree.”
With this in mind, it is significant that both Sinema and Manchin are in a new bipartisan group of 20 senators discussing infrastructure – even though big hitters in both parties have doubts the process can work.
“I think that there is a possibility here to get something meaningful done,” said Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper.”
“Is it going to be everything that I would want? No. Is it going to include some things that potentially some Republicans might be uncomfortable with? Yes.”
Any deal would likely be a shadow of the original $2.2 trillion splash envisaged by Biden. The President, seeking a deal, has already come down by more than $1 trillion on the price tag. But intractable differences on paying for the bill that could have reversed parts of Trump’s tax overhaul scuppered the previous effort. The symbolism of a deal may be as important for Biden as its exact terms, however, given his brand-defining promise to Americans to try to repair splintered national unity by forcing common solutions with Republicans where possible.
As always in Washington, a move toward one faction brings the risk of shattering another part of a coalition for a bill. CNN’s Lauren Fox reported that progressive Democrats warned they will not just blindly back any bipartisan infrastructure package that emerges from the new talks.
“A group of four or five people don’t get to carry 50 Democratic votes on their back,” one Democratic senator said.
Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, who took part in Capito’s original infrastructure compromise effort, twisted the knife by saying he doubted that the new configuration in the Senate would attract the 60 votes needed for passage because it would alienate more liberal Democrats.
Still, any deal that did unite 20 senators – a fifth of the chamber – would be a powerful statement and liberal Democrats would come under extraordinary pressure to cave and offer Biden a much-needed victory.
If the deal ultimately fails, Biden could tell Manchin and his fellow travelers he had done everything he could for a bipartisan product and plead for their backing.
A bipartisan deal on infrastructure might also give senators like Manchin and Sinema the political cover to caucus with fellow Democrats on a partisan drive to enact other aspects of Biden’s jobs and families plan, though it would still be unlikely to get them to budge on filibuster abolition, which is critical to liberal hopes of counteracting GOP restrictive voting bills in the states.
Biden has the advantage of having been involved in the teeth-pulling process of passing bills in Washington for longer than anyone on either side of the negotiations that will ultimately define his presidency. That experience may leave him more sanguine than most. But just months into his presidency, his legacy is already on the line.