The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Swing-district Democrats in need of a midterm reboot push leadership to break up BBB

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) listens as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) speaks during a Nov. 5 news conference on Capitol Hill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) listens as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) speaks during a Nov. 5 news conference on Capitol Hill. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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House Democrats running for reelection in competitive districts, facing increasingly long odds of surviving a potential Republican wave, have confronted party leaders in recent days with demands for a new midterm strategy.

Among the requests of these so-called “front-liner” Democrats is to break up President Biden’s sprawling Build Back Better spending bill that has stalled in the Senate amid opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and hold votes on a series of politically popular provisions that would appeal to centrist voters and core Democrats alike.

These members have argued to top House leaders in recent days — so far, to no avail — that holding votes on narrow measures such as curbing prescription drug costs and extending the child tax credit would help Democrats make a case that they can improve voters’ lives economically despite soaring inflation and other issues that have dragged down Biden’s approval ratings.

The tension was surfaced in a meeting early this month with House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the second-highest ranking member of their caucus. Members pushed back when Hoyer, reflecting the continued view of House leadership, argued that breaking up the spending bill would mean abandoning the potentially transformative giant package, which he said still has a chance of passage.

“I don’t care,” Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) shot back, telling Hoyer that House Democrats should spend the year sending bills to the Senate with the hope that bipartisan deals could be reached on issues important to a broad range of voters. The meeting was described by two members on the call, who spoke anonymously to discuss private talks.

“What I don’t want to do is have the Democratic caucus just beat their heads against the wall for months. We need a timeline here,” Wild, who held on to her seat by less than four points in 2020, said in an interview. “If there is still hope for Manchin to agree, we need to figure out when that’s going to be and what we are doing if he doesn’t meet that deadline because in the past, he hasn’t. What’s our next plan?”

In a virtual meeting Wednesday between Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee officials, front-liners and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) suggested that until there is a resolution in the Senate on the social spending plan, House leadership should be bringing bills to the floor that are top of mind for constituents like keeping schools open, addressing inflation and increasing testing supplies to combat ongoing pandemic woes.

Even if the bills face no chance of passage in the Senate, members argued that it is still time well spent so they can have an arsenal of proof for voters that House Democrats are meeting the moment and addressing their concerns, according to three aides familiar with the meeting.

Aides described Pelosi as “receptive” to their concerns but did not make any promises on what the House will focus on in the coming months.

The conversations reflect a political twist for Democrats over the spending plan.

While it has been backed most aggressively and publicly by leaders of the ascendant left wing of the party, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), many of its provisions have also been embraced by a number of moderate House Democrats from conservative-leaning districts who are increasingly anxious about their pitch to voters.

The efforts by these swing-district Democrats also underscore their growing alarm over whether they can hang onto their slim, five-vote House majority. There are more than two dozen members in the front-liners group, many of them from suburban areas that soured on former president Donald Trump in the last two elections. But Biden’s approval is low, and last year’s strong election for Republicans showed how quickly those gains could be eroded.

Manchin’s decision last month to revoke his support for the second plank of Biden’s economic agenda has left many congressional Democrats furious over his unilateral ability to block passage of priorities continuously promised to the base as one only their party can reform.

“This is a working families bill for goodness sake,” Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) said about how the bill would affect rural states like hers and West Virginia. “These aren’t folks who sat in a bunch of corporate suites most of the time. These are hard-working Americans who need a bit of a break so they can give their family a chance and step up, and I hope that’s the message Sen. Manchin hears.”

In interviews, front-liners said they are trying to get ahead of Manchin’s next blockade by devising contingency plans as Democratic leaders work on narrowing the bill to appease him.

Some members were on board with the narrow proposal Manchin presented to the White House last month that included funding for universal prekindergarten, making Affordable Care Act subsidies permanent, billions in climate spending and a billionaire tax. The Biden administration rejected the offer after it failed to include the overwhelmingly popular child tax credit and racial equity initiatives that Democrats wanted.

“We have to do something, even if it’s just one thing like universal pre-K and universal child care. We have to do something politically to A: Give us something to run on, and B: We won’t be in power for a while,” said one senior Democratic aide to a front-line member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.

Members believe it is entirely possible to strip out the prescription drug and the child tax credit provisions and pass them as stand-alone bills because some Senate Republicans have previously expressed supporting reforms. However, there has not been any formal outreach to Republicans for a bipartisan path forward and no guarantee that the necessary 10 would support these policies.

As one of the few liberal front-liners among many moderates, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) made the progressive pitch for Biden to begin considering passing parts of the Build Back Better Act through executive order. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, the coalition of liberals led by Jayapal, is currently discussing among themselves which provisions they believe Biden could take unilateral action on with little chance of legal challenges, a recommendation they anticipate announcing in the coming weeks.

But there is an acknowledgment across the ideological spectrum that executive orders would not be enough to ensure priorities remain in place, especially if a Republican administration can one day undo them.

Another group of front-liners believe it is time to shift their focus from the social spending plan to the infrastructure law and other legislative achievements.

“People are scared of an overreaching agenda at this point in time. We spent a lot of money — and good money — by Republicans and Democrats,” Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) said while referencing the bipartisan infrastructure bill. “I‘m going to be campaigning on and talking about the work we’ve actually already done. It’d be nice to do a big broader piece, but if this is not exactly the time, so be it.”

While there is a fear of depressing voter enthusiasm for years if Democrats cannot deliver on promises they have made over the last decade, front-line members believe there is an even greater risk in failing to further convince skeptical voters that they have done enough.

“I, of course expect to be, expect all of us to be, judged on the results,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) said about the legislative agenda ahead. “At the end of the day, I would hope that the American people also see that there‘s one party in Congress that’s actually trying to get these things done and another that has no agenda other than blocking everything and creating as much chaos as possible.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article described a meeting between Pelosi and front-liners as being held in-person at the DCCC. The meeting was held virtually. The article has been corrected.

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