A bitter duel between progressives and Senate centrists last week laid bare the mistrust, philosophical divides and practical governing constraints rocking Washington Democrats. And it only deepened the critical question of Joe Biden’s term: Can the President and his allies leverage a fragile hold on power to launch generational change?
Liberal Democrats put an undeniable stamp on Washington by refusing to cave to moderates and blocking a bipartisan $1.2 infrastructure plan without securing a sweeping $3.5 trillion social spending and climate bill in return. And Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona held their moderate line against the wing of their party epitomized by Vermont Democratic Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, using the extraordinary power of their single votes in a 50-50 Senate.
Yet the showdown raised fresh doubts about the fate of Biden’s agenda. And Sunday’s exchanges on political talk shows, meanwhile, served to show how far away the party is from forging a common path forward in the days to come. The spin from some progressive activists after last week’s late night brinkmanship and rare defiance of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is that the showdown saved the ambition of Biden’s larger agenda by keeping engaged the moderates who want the infrastructure plan passed as soon as possible.
That may be true, but it also deepened mistrust within the Democratic caucus in the House and seeded bitterness between the left on one side of the Capitol and the Senate moderates that will complicate a resolution of the tussle.
For Americans who are not Beltway journalists or liberal activists keeping score on Twitter, the Democratic infighting risks coming across as typical Washington dysfunction ahead of next year’s midterm elections, when Democrats are already trying to buck a historical disadvantage.
As party leaders regroup after last week’s political recriminations, the most important issues remain unsettled. How big will the spending package be in dollar terms? What will it contain? And when will Biden’s twin blast of infrastructure and social spending finally make it into law?
Progressives have reluctantly accepted that a package funding home health care for the sick and the elderly, dental and hearing benefits for seniors, free Pre-K and community college and climate change mitigation will have to come down from the $3.5 trillion level – already far below their initial bid of $6 trillion. But there still is no clear agreement on whether Manchin will agree to move above his own $1.5 trillion ceiling. A bill valued at around $2 trillion, a figure that Biden raised in a meeting with Capitol Hill Democrats on Friday, according to CNN reporting, will mean painful choices for progressives between competing priorities.
Back from the brink
Massive legislation is rarely passed in Washington without near disasters. The prospect of failure is often the only thing that prods warring factions toward compromise. And even a trimmed down and final combined infrastructure and social spending punch of $3 trillion – following an earlier $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill that reduced poverty – would still represent an impressive domestic achievement list for Biden’s first year in office. It would also count as a measure of validation for two presidential campaigns by Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, that helped pull the Democratic Party away from centrist incrementalism.
Still, the idea that Democrats have plenty of time is a perilous one. A serious illness or death among their ranks in the Senate could, under certain circumstances, deprive the party of a majority to enact the spending bill under the filibuster-defying mechanism of reconciliation and therefore leave the infrastructure measure – which vulnerable House Democrats are eager to tout back home – marooned in their chamber. And until the spending bill passes, Democrats will be dogged by questions of whether they are trying to go too big, given miniscule minorities in the House and Senate that do not suggest a mandate for radical change.
With Republicans holding the economy hostage by refusing to help in raising the debt ceiling ahead of a mid-October deadline and Democrats struggling to effectively use their power, the White House is in danger of taking on more damage after a tough summer.
While the vicious resurgence of the pandemic in recent months was mostly caused by factors out of Biden’s control – including the reluctance of conservatives to get vaccinated or adopt masking precautions – he is still paying a political price for the grinding battle against the virus and the punishing economic consequences it leaves in its wake. The US crossed 700,000 deaths on Friday and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said “the safest way to celebrate” the holidays “is virtually” – a reminder that the virus is still here.
Outside Washington, given rising prices of gasoline, energy and basic commodities – bacon, for example, is more expensive than it has been for 40 years – the Democratic infighting could come across as self-absorbed. In turn, that could threaten the integrity of the central goal of Biden’s administration – proving that government can work to solve the struggles of regular people.
The stakes for Democrats are significant and run far deeper than the midterm elections next year in which history suggests they are already facing a tough time with the president’s party traditionally losing seats. Chaos, disillusionment with Washington, and dysfunction may only strengthen this country’s internal political estrangement and contribute to the sense of failed and illegitimate establishment rule that an increasingly authoritarian ex-President Donald Trump is trying to ride back to power, along with large elements of the GOP.
Still no deal on the size of the package
There were few signs over the weekend that the outspoken battles within Democratic ranks that forced Pelosi to pull a vote on the infrastructure measure had caused the key players to fold their hands.
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, admitted the $3.5 trillion headline number for the spending package was now out of reach, but rejected Manchin’s $1.5 trillion limit, to which he has subscribed for weeks and publicly reiterated last week. Jayapal, who represents a district in Washington state, refused to say whether $2 trillion was too small for the spending package, but when she was asked about Manchin’s threshold she said, “That’s not going to happen.”
“It’s going to be somewhere between 1.5 (trillion) and 3.5 (trillion). And I think the White House is working on that right now,” Jayapal told Dana Bash.
She drew another line Sunday when she said would not back a package that included the Hyde Amendment – which bans most federal funding for abortions – something Manchin said last week was necessary for it to have his support.
Sanders, meanwhile, pushed back against the notion that Biden was working off an assumption that the eventual spending bill would be around $2 trillion. “What he said is there is going to have to be give-and-take on both sides. I’m not clear he did bring forth a specific number,” Sanders, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The Vermont independent also cranked up pressure on Sinema, after the Arizona senator issued a statement condemning progressives for holding the infrastructure bill hostage and complaining that party leaders had chosen to ignore the clear and long-term differences over the spending bill.
“I think the people of Arizona are beginning to stand up and show some impatience there and saying you know, senator, join the team here, let’s get something done on reconciliation,” Sanders said on NBC.
Should Biden do more?
Such divides will throw the spotlight back onto the role of the President.
Biden, a veteran of half-a-century of Washington deal making, spent hours meeting and talking to lawmakers last week as the party’s Capitol Hill leaders sought to forge a compromise. But he didn’t make a strong public bid to move the talks forward, raising questions about his role.
Biden White House
On the one hand, Biden’s decision not to try to coerce the progressive wing of the party allowed the group to relish a moment of victory that could offer political cover for a compromise. And Biden’s decision not to publicly break with Manchin preserved a relationship that will be crucial to any attempt to get the West Virginia senator to raise his top-line sticker price for the spending bill. But the fact that the President now plans to travel to Michigan on Tuesday to build support for the infrastructure bill and the spending plan may be a sign that the White House understands he needs to be more forceful in public.
One curiosity of the fight between rival Democrats on both the infrastructure bill and the spending plan known as the “Build Back Better” agenda is that the tactics of the debate have tended to get more attention than the massively ambitious spending on health, education, job creation and climate mitigation designed to remodel the economy to ease the plight of working Americans.
A tighter focus on the deliverables of the program – and their funding by tax hikes on wealthy individuals and corporations – may not just help build bridges between mistrustful Democrats, but could be vital in selling voters on the benefits of the measures if they eventually pass.
Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, a member of both the centrist, bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told CNN’s Pamela Brown in an interview Saturday that a testing week had delivered some clarity for Democrats, and underscored the stakes they face.
“While everybody else is running around doom and gloom, I think what finally happened at the end of the week is it became clear exactly what the President wants. We know where we stand with the reality of two senators that are … going to agree to certain things, though we’ve got to keep them at the table.
“Democrats are unified that failure is not an option. And it’s not. We have to deliver for the American people.”