Democrats are substantially tamping down their ambitions after failing to pass their top priorities, turning their attention to keeping the lights on and passing narrowly targeted legislation while scrambling to salvage aspects of their sprawling economic agenda.
In the past month, Democrats failed to pass a $1.75 trillion bill strengthening the social safety net and a second bill expanding access to the ballot box across the country – unable to overcome the steadfast opposition of Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia in the 50-50 Senate.
While the Democrats’ bill to rewrite voting and elections laws is dead for the year after Senate Republicans blocked it on Wednesday night, and Senate Democrats failed to eliminate the filibuster that allows their opponents to stop it, they are now discussing targeted changes to make it harder to overturn a presidential election when a joint session of Congress meets to count electoral votes.
Democratic leaders in Congress are now reduced to hoping that they can pass what President Joe Biden labeled as “chunks” of his Build Back Better bill.
“We have negotiated for five months. It has failed miserably,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Senate Budget Committee chairman, told CNN on Thursday. “We lost the enormously important vote last night and Build Back Better, which is enormously popular with the American people, it’s what they want us to do, has also been sabotaged. I think it is time to move in a very different direction.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called “chunks” an “interesting word” on Thursday that belies the importance of what they argue their legislation will do: expand child care, family care and health care and address climate change.
“It may be more limited, but it is still significant,” Pelosi said.
But in a memo Friday, Pelosi acknowledged that the Build Back Better bill that consumed Congress for months – the bill at the center of Biden’s economic agenda – will be put on the backburner while the House focuses on other matters.
Pelosi said the House must pass a government spending bill by a February 18 deadline, and will consider other bills to ensure health benefits for veteran victims exposed to toxic substances in burn pits, to help Ukraine as Russia considers whether to invade it and to boost US competitiveness against China by investing in domestic semiconductor chip manufacturing.
With their narrow majorities in both chambers at risk in the 2022 elections, Democrats will mostly tout their accomplishments last year – passing a $1.2 trillion infrastructure law with bipartisan support and a nearly $2 trillion Covid-19 relief plan enacted by only Democrats.
“Did we set expectations too high? We set expectations,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told CNN. “Have we been able to accomplish all of them? No, but we’ve accomplished a large amount of them.”
The upcoming legislative agenda put forward Friday for the House underscored the difficulties in trying to persuade all 50 Democratic senators, including Manchin, to agree on the wide-ranging Build Back Better bill.
Manchin set a very high bar this week to passing a scaled-back version, saying that they are “starting from scratch” and will need to deal with pressing national issues – like the pandemic, inflation and the federal debt – before addressing a cornerstone of the White House’s agenda. He also said that Congress needs to fix the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which has come under scrutiny in the wake of last year’s January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
“The main thing we need to do is take care of the inflation,” Manchin told CNN when asked about re-engaging in talks with the White House. “Get your financial house in order. Get a tax code that works and take care of the pharmaceuticals that are gauging the people with high prices. We can fix that. We can do a lot of good things.”
Manchin said Thursday that he has yet to begin talks with Biden. He indicated that his last offer to the White House from December is not on the table anymore, saying that they will work from a “clean sheet of paper.”
He wouldn’t draw a redline on a dollar amount he would accept, only saying: “I want to see what’s feasible, what we can do in a reasonable, feasible way.”
Manchin also dismissed criticism from Democrats that he undermined the Biden agenda by coming out in opposition to the Build Back Better bill in December, saying he represents a different constituency than his colleagues.
“We’ve come from different areas,” Manchin told CNN. “OK. It’s not just all urban, metropolitan areas. Those of us who come from rural areas, and there’s a complete different constituency that we all serve.”
“I’m not a Washington Democrat, so the base they have is a different base than I have,” he added.
Democrats may be forced to abandon key aspects of the Build Back Better plan even though they have wide support from the party, particularly an expansion of the child tax credit, funding for housing programs and an expansion of Medicare to include hearing coverage.
But Democrats face other issues besides trying to figure out what Manchin will accept. As the White House discussed moving parts of the Build Back Better plan this week, familiar problems re-emerged, including from Democrats in high tax states that want to ease the limits Republicans imposed on deductions for state and local taxes during the Trump administration.
Many Democrats said that making those changes would amount to a giveaway for the rich. But on Thursday a trio of House Democrats – Tom Suozzi of New York and Mikie Sherrill and Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey – said in a statement that repealing the cap on the state and local tax deduction “remains a top priority.”
“We support the President’s agenda, and if there are any efforts that include a change in the tax code, then a SALT fix must be part of it,” they wrote. “No SALT, no deal.”