When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tried to appease Democratic moderates by scheduling a vote on the infrastructure bill before there was agreement on the other measure, party liberals revolted and the vote was postponed, indefinitely it would seem, as negotiations continue. During an appearance on Capitol Hill on Friday, Biden pleaded with House Democrats for patience as he relinked the fate of the two bills.
The internal wars continue, and neither the president nor the speaker seem to have the formula to unite newly assertive progressives, led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who forced Pelosi to back down on holding a vote on infrastructure, and the handful of holdouts among the moderates, led by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who want to spend far less money on the social program package.
That it would come to this was all but inevitable, as many analysts predicted early in Biden’s presidency. Pull back from the events of the past few days, from the squabbling between the moderates and progressives, from the public and private negotiations that mesmerized inside Washington, from the flood of speculation and rumors, and instead, look at some of the fundamentals that brought Democrats to this moment.
No president has attempted to enact transformative change, to do as much as Biden is trying to do, to spend as much money as he has proposed, and to do it all with such slender congressional majorities and so little margin for error.
Democrats control the executive and legislative branches of government. Their rank-and-file understandably expect action on big things, not just on the two domestic spending packages but also on immigration, racial justice and voting rights. Pent-up demand inside the Democratic coalition is palpable. But the control that Democrats technically enjoy in Washington is built on a fragile political foundation that requires total unity in a party famous for having little.
It’s true that Biden defeated former president Donald Trump with both a comfortable electoral majority and a big popular vote margin. Where it counted, however, which is to say in the handful of states that determined the outcome of the election, Biden’s victory margins were far more tenuous.
Eight states — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — were decided by three points or fewer; Biden won six of them. A shift of 44,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin could have changed the outcome. Biden won because he was not Trump. His victory left the country still divided over priorities. His mandate was minimal.
Biden also was an unusual winner in that he had no coattails. In truth, he had reverse coattails. Democrats lost seats in the House, against predictions that they would gain seats, leaving them with the narrowest of majorities. It took the two special Senate elections in Georgia — and the damage Trump did to the GOP’s hopes there — to give Democrats a 50-50 split in the upper chamber. Democrats gained control, but it came with a legislative straitjacket. A single senator or a handful of House Democrats could block enactment of legislation, as everyone is seeing.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the New Deal, when Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through the Great Society, when Ronald Reagan enacted a strikingly conservative agenda, all worked with sizable legislative majorities. For Roosevelt and Johnson, those majorities were formed within their own party. For Reagan, it was a coalition of Republicans as well as of conservative Democrats, most of whom knew that their constituents had voted for Reagan and that their political survival depended on getting in line.
Biden did not run for president by sketching out trillions in new spending. That was Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the democratic socialist whose work over two presidential campaigns defined a newly leftward course for the Democrats. It was Biden who, when asked whether voters should be worried about socialism, said, “I beat the socialist. That’s how I got elected.” Biden isn’t a socialist, but in office, he embraced many — not all — of the things Sanders had advocated, albeit under the banner from his campaign of rebuilding the middle class.
There are reasons he decided to go big as president, arriving in the Oval Office during unprecedented times. The coronavirus pandemic exposed inequities in society that had long gone untreated. The movement that arose after the killing of George Floyd also highlighted problems that needed addressing. Biden decided to seize what seemed a historic opportunity for a Democratic president.
These came together in part in the Biden domestic agenda that was unveiled in three parts: a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package enacted during his first months in office, followed by a hard infrastructure package — roads and bridges, etc. — and then what Biden’s team described as a human infrastructure package (an amalgam of social safety net spending and money to combat and slow effects of climate change). Those two added up to about $4 trillion more, for a total of around $6 trillion.
The hard infrastructure proposal became a bipartisan bill, championed by a president who said he would try to unify the country and wanted to demonstrate his seriousness by working to gain support from both Democrats and Republicans for something widely popular. The rest, amounting to $3.5 trillion, is in a bill that must be passed only with Democratic votes under rules of reconciliation that avoid a filibuster.
All this came together in headier times for the Democrats, in the early months of Biden’s presidency when things seemed to be going his way. He has since hit a much rougher patch, and the internecine warfare among Democrats highlights the challenges ahead. Part of this is a reflection of the legislative process, but it is also about leadership from the Oval Office.
Individual items in the reconciliation package may be popular, as polls suggest. But how many people know what’s in that bigger bill? The fixation on $3.5 trillion has put the focus in the wrong place. That’s a failure of messaging by the president and leading Democrats. Biden has spoken often in scripted settings about his agenda and the programs he wants enacted. Little of what he has said has broken through — as the standoff among Democrats in Congress shows.
There are now many cooks in the kitchen as Democrats seek consensus and compromise between the $3.5 trillion proposed and a $1.5 trillion ceiling Manchin is calling for. Ultimately, however, this is Biden’s agenda and the political judgments will fall most heavily on him, while the rest of his party will bear the consequences. Democrats know the consequences of failure would be costly, as they think ahead to next year’s midterm elections. What no one can say is what the consequences of success would be.
Biden signaled Friday that it will take time to reach a compromise, if one is possible. Manchin and Sinema and the emboldened progressives are still far apart. All express a desire to get the work done, but the story so far is their failure to do so. It was never going to be easy.