The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The expectations game hounds Democrats as they try to deliver their vast agenda

From left, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) walk to a news conference on Capitol Hill on Sept. 23.
From left, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) walk to a news conference on Capitol Hill on Sept. 23. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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By the standards of early November 2020, the idea that President Biden could be on the cusp of signing a combined $2.5 trillion in domestic policy legislation — following up on a $2 trillion economic stimulus bill — would have seemed like a liberal fever dream.

Faced with a narrow House majority and remote prospects for winning control of the Senate with victories in a pair of Georgia Senate runoff elections, the wishes of a handful of moderate Republican senators appeared to be a likely and serious constraint for Biden’s legislative ambitions.

But history unfolded differently, with Democrats securing unified control of Washington in January with twin victories in Georgia. Now less than a year later, the passage of a mere $1.5 trillion in climate, health-care and other social spending, on top of another $1 trillion in physical infrastructure funding, is striking many Democrats as a bitter disappointment — and illustrating how the standards of political success are set against the expectations that precede them.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) echoed the feelings of many liberals last week when he said a lower spending level favored by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) would mean “decimating” Democrats’ plans to address health care, education, elder care and climate change.

“The planet is at stake,” he said. “Clearly $1.5 trillion would make it absolutely impossible for us to do what has to be done in order to address the crisis of climate.”

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Yet Democrats appear to have no choice but to accept a sharp compromise — the outgrowth of a strategy by Biden and party leaders to maintain grand ambitions on Capitol Hill, sketching out an agenda measured in the trillions of dollars that aims to foment profound shifts in federal policy despite close margins in Congress and warnings from moderate lawmakers about spending too much.

Now the reckoning has come: Once-heralded deals to spend as much as $3.5 trillion on the tax, climate and social-spending legislation and to send the infrastructure bill to Biden’s desk for enactment have evaporated. Both bills hang in the balance as Democratic leaders seek to bridge a $2 trillion spending gap and resolve crucial policy disagreements in coming weeks.

“A lot of this is expectations — I think that’s a big part of the issue that we’re dealing with right now,” Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.) said last week, as congressional leaders struggled to get House liberals and two moderate senators on the same page behind Biden’s agenda.

The best Kildee and other Democrats could make of the situation was that Democrats were finally coming to terms with their internal divisions, six months after Biden was being compared to the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson after signing the $2 trillion pandemic relief bill.

“At least when you’re in a box, you know where you are,” Kildee added.

The delay has been somewhat by design: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), in consultation with the White House, sketched out a precarious two-track process to simultaneously advance both a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a Democrats-only vehicle containing the rest of the domestic agenda. Along the way, each gave assurances and cut deals that advanced the process but also papered over the internal divides.

In early July, for instance, Schumer presided over a budget accord among members of the Senate Budget Committee that resulted in the $3.5 trillion budget for the domestic policy bill that has since been branded Build Back Better. But two famously unpredictable Democratic senators — Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) — were not on the committee, and while they agreed to support a budget framework that would allow for it, they did not support that level of spending.

A month later, as the House moved to advance that framework, Pelosi won the support of restive moderates by agreeing to hold a vote on the infrastructure bill by the end of September. But the liberal wing of the caucus had no intention of allowing that bill to pass separately from Build Back Better, and the deal was ultimately rescinded Friday when Biden visited Capitol Hill and made clear that both bills would pass in tandem.

For Democrats and the Biden agenda, it’s becoming a matter of trust

What has been left behind is an atmosphere of mutual mistrust between liberals, moderates and the congressional leadership, with only the potential collapse of Biden’s governing agenda holding lawmakers together. Even that might not be enough, with Manchin insisting on a $1.5 trillion maximum for Build Back Better, Sinema making her own quiet demands and those on the left balking at having to trim their sails.

“I don’t think anyone’s ready to unilaterally concede a trillion dollars or anything like that,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who took special aim at the two senators’ demands. “They are so all over the map that you just get whiplash trying to make sense of it all,” he said.

In fact, both Manchin and Sinema had intimated at least as far back as July that they were not willing to support the spending levels that their more liberal colleagues wanted. Sinema issued a statement on July 28. The same day, as first reported by Politico, Manchin signed a memo indicating he supported a $1.5 trillion bill, subject to a litany of policy contingencies. Schumer countersigned the memo, scribbling a codicil: “I will try to dissuade Joe on many of these.”

The memo was kept under wraps until Thursday, as Manchin faced mounting pressure from the left to detail his negotiating position. Sinema, meanwhile, has said next to nothing publicly about her own priorities.

Yet the $3.5 trillion Senate Budget Committee price tag persisted for months, in many ways defining the scope of the Democratic Party’s ambitions for the Biden presidency. And now any rollback appears destined to strike liberals as a setback, even as Republicans gear up to attack them ahead of the 2022 midterms for a “reckless tax-and-spending spree” regardless.

“My own belief is that $3.5 trillion is already a major compromise,” Sanders told reporters last week.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a Senate Budget Committee member who was among those who brokered the $3.5 trillion figure, said the panel’s accord was simply “setting the stage” for further negotiations.

Those who took the $3.5 trillion figure seriously as a final top line, Kaine said, “should know the Senate better than that.”

Addressing reporters on Tuesday, Schumer pledged a deal would be struck but acknowledged there would be some hard feelings: “Just about everyone will be disappointed in some things. Just about everyone will be pleased with some things. But we will get it done.”

What has been doubly frustrating on the left is that the party has shifted unmistakably since 2009 and 2010, when Democrats last had unified control of the White House, the House and the Senate. Then, a significant rump of dozens of conservatives and moderates forced major revisions to the Affordable Care Act, including the elimination of a government-run “public option” that would compete with private insurers.

Now, that brand of Democrat is mostly extinct on Capitol Hill, and even most self-identified moderates say that they are ready to pass some sort of legislation tackling tax rates, climate change, health care, as well as aid to children, students and the elderly.

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Of the 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus, Sanders said, at least 40 would have supported a budget of at least $6 trillion. But the thin margins have made total consensus difficult to achieve, and it only takes one implacable senator to force concessions.

“You can’t legislate like FDR when you got a 50-50 Senate, and that’s their basic problem,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.).

While Democrats insist they will ultimately deliver, the risk of failure is real. They need not look back any further than 2017, when Republicans gave up their attempts to undo the Affordable Care Act using the same process Democrats are now using to pass their agenda. After years of pledging in campaigns to “repeal and replace Obamacare” and taking dozens of votes to do so during Barack Obama’s presidency, key GOP lawmakers wavered when they had the chance to deliver under President Donald Trump.

“In a place like this with so many different regions of the country, so much difference in terms of the spectrum of ideology, just in terms of all political needs of individuals, it’s really hard to get 100 percent on anything,” Cornyn said. “We learned that the hard way, and I think they’re experiencing that now.”

Republicans are hoping that the analogy could extend even further. The climax of the repeal effort came when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) cast a decisive vote in July 2017, pointing his thumb down dramatically to the Senate floor.

“It’s not lost on me that Senator Sinema comes from the same state and considers Senator McCain to be a role model,” Cornyn said.

Rank-and-file Democrats, meanwhile, are counting on a different outcome: making peace with a smaller bill — one that the party can pass, rally around and run on ahead of next year’s midterms, even if it doesn’t fulfill all of Biden’s vast agenda.

“We always knew this was going to be hard, and so we’ll just do what we can do,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “I think it will be meaningful, and it will be substantial, and it will be less than 3.5.”