Biden spent Wednesday urgently trying to mend splits between moderate and progressive Democrats that threaten to topple his foundational $3.5 trillion spending bill and a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package within days. His efforts at classic Oval Office cajoling took place under extreme political pressure at a moment that will prove whether the President’s party has the capacity to fully use the power it won in 2020.
Minute majorities in the House and the Senate were always going to make it tough to live up to the soaring expectations of Biden’s election win. Then the Senate Republicans’ use of the filibuster forced Democratic leaders to cram almost all of his popular goals on health care, education, climate change and expanding the social safety net into one massive bill that could pass on a majority vote. The downside: If the monster spending plan fails it could take down much of Biden’s legacy in one crushing collapse.
Now a grim end to summer is turning into a defining political period for Democrats. Setbacks just on Wednesday included the failure of bipartisan police reform to new controversy over Biden’s rocky exit from Afghanistan and fury among progressives over the administration’s handling of a humanitarian crisis at the southern border. Earlier this week, the Senate parliamentarian ruled out inserting a path out of the shadows for undocumented migrants in Biden’s spending plan, the conservative Supreme Court is quickly eroding the right to an abortion, there is no path for voting rights reform and midterm elections next year are shortening the legislative clock. All of this makes it even more vital that Biden scores a big success in the crucial weeks to come — a factor that is piling even more strain on the fault lines inside the Democratic Party.
The current Capitol Hill showdown is often characterized as an ideological disconnect between obstinate moderates like West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin and progressives fighting alongside Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But while a successful resolution to the high-stakes impasse would require both veterans and others to move off their positions, the situation is far more complicated and reflects the reality of a divided Democratic Party and nation.
Plenty of commentators compared Biden’s expansive social agenda to the New Deal reforms of Franklin Roosevelt in 1930s and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs in the 1960s. And while coalition building was sometimes complicated even in eras when ideological lines inside parties were not as rigid, both generally could rely on solid congressional majorities. Biden cannot, meaning that a successful outcome of the current intra-Democratic Party struggle over his agenda would be a huge achievement by itself.
Going big is a huge risk
While there is no margin for error offered by small House and Senate majorities, the Democratic Party now spans a vast ideological divide — making it tougher to build the near 100% coalitions Biden needs and giving a few lawmakers at the pivot points great power. The moderate Manchin, for instance, might be holding the fate of the presidency in his hands and drive progressives to distraction. But if it wasn’t for his reelection win in 2018 in a state where ex-President Donald Trump romped to victory twice, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell would be running the Senate.
In some ways, Democrats have only themselves to blame. While upset wins in Senate run-off elections in Georgia secured the 50-50 balance that gives Vice President Kamala Harris a deciding vote, Democrats were disappointed with their performances elsewhere last year. Had they managed to capture reachable seats in purple states like Maine and North Carolina, it wouldn’t really matter what Manchin thought about the size of a spending package that he senses is coming in too big and too soon.
As it stands, Biden can only lose three votes in the House — and none in the Senate. And the President on whom Democratic leaders are relying to bring the party together is a little dinged up politically after a brutal August, and so might not have quite the same supply of political capital to spend as was once the case.
That prevailing political environment might make a case for incremental, moderate change. But one lesson of recent years in Washington is that power can be fleeting with a split and ornery electorate stuck perpetually in a throw-the-bums-out mood. So, it makes sense for a party in power to attempt the most significant reform possible in the hope their triumphs endure. The repeated failure of Republicans to eradicate the Affordable Care Act despite their own congressional majorities shows how effective this strategy can be.
But going big brings its own conundrum: Is the party trying to do too much with tiny majorities and, by going for broke, does it risk fracturing its own political conditions and achieving almost nothing?
The bill is coming due for Biden’s dual-track political strategy
Biden’s audiences with moderate and progressive lawmakers at the White House on Wednesday underscored how he has a foot in both camps. A shrewd presidential primary and general election strategy in 2020 allowed him to maximize the breadth of his support. He came across as having the temperament of a moderate but was still able to get more buy-in from his defeated rival Sanders and the left of the party than 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton managed.
But the bill for that strategy may now be coming due, with little sign that either wing of the party is in the mood for the compromise that Biden and his legacy needs.
Moderates like Manchin, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and other less vocal lawmakers fear that the $3.5 trillion spending bill will alienate their more conservative electorates, think it’s too big and question its content. Some moderates in the House fear this price tag will cost them their seats in 2022 with Republicans favored to win back control and relishing a classic spending-focused campaign assault against Democrats.
But progressives say they will refuse to back Biden’s infrastructure bill with Republicans — another central plank of his presidency — unless the spending bill passes too. If one half of this complex legislative maneuver Democratic leaders are using to bring the party fails, the whole edifice could crumble.
That prospect prompted veteran Democratic operative and climate change campaigner John Podesta to speak out on Wednesday.
“If Democrats care about our nation’s future and well-being, this is the legislative package we need. No excuses. This is it,” Podesta wrote in a memo. The former senior White House aide for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama urged progressives not to dig in on the spending bill or moderates to think they could get everything.
“We will not secure the full $3.5 trillion investment. It’s time for Democrats to unite in finding the path forward. Similarly, to those Democrats who only favor the bipartisan infrastructure bill, know this: you are either getting both bills or neither — and the prospect of neither is unconscionable. “
Tensions between the left and the right
This tense political moment is breeding real animosity
Some progressives have angrily rounded on Manchin. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York accused him, for example, of holding weekly huddles with Exxon to get his instructions on oil and gas policy — an accusation that the West Virginian branded as false. It’s true, however, that Manchin has long been an advocate for his state’s coal industry, and that’s one reason he may balk at climate provisions in the spending bill.
Washington operatives, fellow lawmakers and reporters have spent years trying to work out what makes Manchin tick. One theory is that it’s all political. His intentions for his 2024 reelection race are not known — but if he has future ambitions, he cannot afford to ignore the people of a state that has transformed into a GOP bastion during his career. And few politicians know their patch as well as he does, fueling a counter impression that Manchin is not just relishing his chance to wield huge power — he’s actually serving his electorate in the way that they want.
“My guess is there aren’t too many people in the state who have not been touched by Joe Manchin on one way or the other,” said John Kilwein, a professor of political science at West Virginia University.
“This is a very small state, rural, retail politics kind of state. He is Joe from Farmington, he knows every part of the state.” And with 2024 in mind, the Democratic leadership knows that without Manchin, they could take another seat off the table right now.
“If you took a brand-new Joe Manchin and gave him a different name there is no way he can get elected right now,” said Kilwein.
But progressives also feel burning urgency. While not a dominant voice in the party, the progressive caucus has growing weight and power, especially in the House. And the events of recent weeks have been demoralizing for the group, fueling its desire to grab a huge win now.
While Democrats control Washington, conservative power is running rampant across the country, as underscored by the Supreme Court’s enabling of the controversial Texas abortion law. A chance at bipartisan congressional police reform, which grew out of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the murder of George Floyd, just foundered. And the Senate parliamentarian’s ruling put yet another delay on a permanent legislative fix for undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children.
If the $3.5 trillion bill fails or is significantly curtailed, it would be hard for left-wing Democrats to return to their constituents next year and say they delivered. That is why progressives say they are ready to trash the infrastructure bill if they don’t get their spending package. But it’s a hardball tactic that could bring both measures down.
Referring to expectations that progressives would cave rather than destroy Biden’s agenda and legacy, Washington state Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal told CNN’s Manu Raju on Monday: “They can take that bet if they want.”
In most periods of American political history, it would be a no-brainer for rival Democrats to come together in support of their president given the huge stakes for his administration and their constituents.
But the ideological dynamics inside their party are so uncertain, and the margins for error are so small that no one can be certain that will happen. That is the magnitude of Biden’s challenge.