the democrats, you can to have heard, are confused. President Joe Biden’s approval ratings have sunk to new lows and his expansive economic agenda has stalled on Capitol Hill. Opposition from progressives forced House leaders to cancel a scheduled vote Thursday on the president’s only bipartisan success in the Senate, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. That failure, and the ensuing finger-pointing, threatens to drive the warring wings of the party even further apart. Come Halloween, all Biden could be showing for his negotiations with Congress in recent months is a first-ever US debt default– stick the presidential equivalent of your hand in the candy bag and pull out a razor blade instead.
But if Halloween looks bleak for Democrats, Christmas may bring more hope. These setbacks are not final or fatal, and time is still on their side. The deadlines Democrats missed this week were largely artificial, and House leaders said a vote on the infrastructure bill could still take place Friday. Speaker Nancy Pelosi had promised moderates that the House would vote on the bipartisan infrastructure plan by the end of September. But the long-term consequences of postponing that vote in the face of defeat are little more than hard feelings. (The deadline that really mattered — a Sept. 30 deadline to avert a government shutdown — is the one Congress finally met and approved a temporary funding extension yesterday afternoon.) against the midterm elections. next year have something to offer voters – remains the same.
This is not to lessen the party’s real challenges. Democrats are not very close to agreeing on legislation, and the only certainty is that they will meet both their $3.5 trillion goal and the scope of their ambitions to tackle climate change, expand children’s and health care programs and accelerate implementation. will have to scale back. universal pre-K, free community college and paid family leave. Two Democratic senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — have refused to commit firmly to even passing a bill, and one of them could destroy the proposal just by walking away from negotiations. The delay also increases the risk that serious illness or death could completely wipe out the Democratic Senate majority.
However, what confuses and ultimately limits Democrats is not the calendar, but the miniscule size of their majorities. Republicans are united in opposition to Biden’s plans to expand the social safety net. Democrats therefore use a Senate budget process known as reconciliation that allows them to bypass a filibuster and pass a bill with a simple majority. They can afford to lose just three votes in the House and none of their 50 senators. Parties in countries with parliamentary systems of government routinely pass legislation on small majorities, but that is not the tradition here. Rarely in recent history has a political party in America tried to do so much with such a small margin. The reach of Biden’s proposals has necessitated comparisons to FDR’s New Deal, but in 1933 the Democrats had more than 60 percent of the seats in the Senate and over 70 percent in the House. Much more recently, Barack Obama briefly enjoyed a filibuster-proof 60 Democratic seats in the Senate and a House margin in the dozens. Progressives like to imagine Republicans being more effective at wielding power, but when the GOP controlled both Congress and the White House under Donald Trump, the only major law it passed was the 2017 tax cut.
In the 2020 election, voters chose Joe Biden, but Republicans won seats in the House and the Senate ended up dead; Democrats took control solely on the basis of Vice President Kamala Harris’ casting vote. “Regularly, on Capitol Hill, there is talk as if there is a mandate for the largest legislative package, at least since the Great Society programs of the 1960s and perhaps the 1930s. That’s not true,” Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse said in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic Festival yesterday. “Yet people do that because they misinterpret antipolitics as a mandate for something.” Sasse, a Republican opposed to Biden’s agenda, is not an unbiased observer. But Pelosi made the same point a day earlier in an interview with Goldberg. “President Roosevelt had 319 Democrats in Congress when he put forward his agenda,” she said. “Not that it wasn’t transformational, but this is also transformational, by a smaller margin.”
Manchin and Sinema’s competing demands illustrate how difficult the task of the Democratic leadership is. Manchin, who won his seat after broadcasting an advertisement in which he literally shot a hole through Obama’s 2010 climate law, opposes some of the Democratic proposals to combat climate change. He wants the party to base its reconciliation bill on reversing Trump’s 2017 tax cuts. Sinema, however, is reportedly opposed to raising corporate and individual tax rates, but wants to prioritize climate regulations. Democrats must both vote for the final bill, and they need the support of 218 MPs who have their own wish lists.
As I wrote earlier this week, the fact that the Democrats are even debating a $3.5 trillion bill, on top of the $1.9 trillion US bailout issued this spring and the $1.2 trillion infrastructure measure, is a victory for the progressive wing of the party. Cut the proposal in half and it would still be a huge legislative achievement. That could indeed happen. While Pelosi still hoped to pass the infrastructure bill Thursday afternoon, Manchin confirmed to reporters that he had told Biden and Senate leader Chuck Schumer that he wanted the broader economic bill to cost no more than $1.5 trillion. Progressives had harassed Manchin and Sinema to give them a price tag they could support as a sign of their determination to pass the Reconciliation Act. But progressives probably weren’t happy with the answer.
Blocking the passage of an infrastructure law important to moderates was the only leverage progressives had to ensure moderates wouldn’t drop the second, more far-reaching law. Pelosi thought she could wear them out, and that if she could get a framework agreement on the Reconciliation Act, she could win progressive votes. All Manchin and Sinema offered was a willingness to continue talking. But in the end that may be enough. The last time the Democrats took control of Washington, they didn’t get through their landmark achievement, the Affordable Care Act, until March 2010, and that was after the bill had been declared dead several times. What united the party was the fear of failure and the despair of having something to show for the power the voters had given them. Biden needs that sense of desperation to push moderates and progressives to compromise, and the closer the calendar gets to 2022 without action, the more that desperation will increase. But at least on Thursday, the Democrats weren’t desperate enough.