“I think it’s going to send a signal that we’ve got to produce. You know, the American public gave us a majority of both houses for a reason,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
The poor election returns for Democrats incited a new burst of activity in the House, where lawmakers raced to fine-tune a $1.75 trillion proposal to overhaul the nation’s health care, education, climate and tax laws. Party leaders finalized a new version of the legislation on Wednesday, began a key procedural hearing and set in motion a plan to vote on it before the end of the week.
Even as they readied the new 2,135-page proposal, however, Democrats found themselves grappling with a slew of lingering policy fights — a reflection of the persistent tensions between the party’s liberal and moderate wings. Behind the scenes, they haggled again over plans to include changes to immigration rules, for example, and angled to restore a recently scrapped program to provide paid family and medical leave to millions of Americans. Many of the efforts amounted to last-gasp attempts to push back on cuts sought by centrists including Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).
In contrast with his own party’s new vigor, Manchin on Wednesday interpreted Democrats’ defeat in Virginia differently. He said the loss reaffirmed his long-known fiscal fears about his own party’s vast ambitions to spend trillions of dollars to advance its agenda.
“They were concerned about inflation, high costs, making it more difficult for them,” Manchin said of voters. “And I think they spoke loud and clear at the voting [booth], so I hope everybody listens.”
A House vote on the fuller $1.75 trillion measure would open the door for Democrats to advance a second, parallel measure to improve the country’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections. That $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill has been stuck in the chamber since it cleared the Senate on a bipartisan basis in August, a political casualty in the broader war among the politically fractious Democratic caucus.
Democrats have sketched out similarly optimistic timetables to advance the two bills in the past, only to be stymied by their own internal schisms, delaying votes that could have sent at least some of the spending legislation to the president sooner. The setbacks have prompted Biden to intervene personally, hoping to salvage a sprawling policy agenda that corresponds with promises that he and other party candidates made during the 2020 presidential race.
But there may have been no greater catalyst for swift action than the voting that concluded in Virginia, New Jersey and other states on Tuesday. Some Democrats saw those election results as a warning sign a year before Americans are set to return to the polls in 2022, when their narrow yet potent majorities in the House and Senate are on the line.
“I do know that people want us to get things done,” Biden told reporters Wednesday. “And that’s why I’m continuing to push very hard for the Democratic Party to move along and pass my infrastructure bill and my Build Back Better bill.”
The new political uncertainty underscored the high stakes for Democrats in the year after they swept into power in Washington on a plan to “build back better” — the president’s oft-repeated slogan that later became the name of one of his signature initiatives. Biden and his allies on Capitol Hill have framed their long-sought spending in historic terms, promising it would transform wide swaths of the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But the Republican victory in Virginia — with GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin beating back Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe — still opened the door for fresh political attacks on Wednesday. Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), the leader of the GOP’s campaign arm for the Senate, said the result evinces that the “public is rejecting this big government socialism.”
“Inflation is the biggest issue for people right now, and it’s caused by big government,” said Scott, leveling an oft-repeated line by Republicans that Democrats vehemently dispute.
Facing new criticism, White House officials did not appear poised to slow down their push. Heather Boushey, a top economic adviser to Biden, described the recent spike in prices as a “transitory” consequence of the coronavirus pandemic. And she said the investments put forward on Capitol Hill would “contain costs over the long-term,” boosting U.S. economic output.
“I think there is enormous urgency with this legislation,” she said at an event hosted by The Washington Post. “The president has been clear from day one that inaction is not an option. We do hope that we see the House act this week.”
The new version of the $1.75 trillion bill House Democrats unveiled Wednesday included a limited expansion to Medicare, new sums to fight climate change and a slew of policy proposals that aim to aid families, including the creation of free, universal prekindergarten.
The proposal is a more robust version of the blueprint that Biden presented to House lawmakers last week, which the president portrayed as an attempt to unite liberals and moderates around a scaled-back version of their original $3.5 trillion plan. Democrats tacked onto it a series of newly negotiated proposals, including a retooled effort to try to lower prescription drug prices for seniors.
With the revised bill in hand, many Democrats exited a private Wednesday caucus meeting believing the chamber could act as soon as Thursday to advance the totality of Biden’s economic agenda. Asked earlier about the prospects of a vote this week, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters earlier in the day: “I hope so.”
“Pelosi is committed to bringing this up, so are a lot of the caucuses,” added Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), a member of the left-leaning Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Now we’re in that phase and trying to push as quickly as possible.”
Democrats still have a number of critical issues to resolve, including lingering concerns aired by Manchin as to whether the party is moving too quickly to adopt policy changes that could add to the deficit and cause even more prices to rise. Some moderate-leaning House Democrats on Wednesday added their voices to the calls for more time to study the recently revised bill — and more evidence that confirms if it is financed in full.
“What the heck is all this other stuff? Can it pass the Senate?” asked Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), noting that Democrats added hundreds of pages from their earlier draft. “It really keeps changing.”
Additional unresolved policy battles include an attempt to tackle immigration as part of the package. The House included new language allowing the government to “parole” undocumented immigrants by giving them five-year work permits that shield them from deportation. It would also allow them to travel abroad and extend some benefits. But Democrats severely scaled back their original plan to provide immigrants a pathway to citizenship, leaving some liberals unhappy.
On climate, meanwhile, lawmakers continued to haggle with Manchin over a proposal to provide tax credits to families that seek to purchase electric vehicles. And Democrats in the House and Senate sparred again over a plan to repeal a cap on deductions that families can take on their state and local taxes. Lawmakers in high-cost cities, especially in New York and California, have sought a more generous approach than that favored by members including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who described it as a “massive tax break” for the wealthy.
Pelosi on Wednesday also said lawmakers had revived an effort to provide paid family and medical leave as part of the bill, potentially touching off still another internal dispute among her party. The still-forming plan would provide four weeks of benefits starting in 2024, according to a Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a policy that has not been finalized. It appears to include family and medical leave at a cost of about $200 billion, the aide added.
The idea previously had been jettisoned from the $1.75 trillion blueprint that Biden presented to Democrats last week, a reflection of months of unsuccessful talks with Manchin, who questioned the solvency and necessity of such a social benefit program. In bringing it back, though, Pelosi appeared to be daring the moderate to strip out a proposal Democrats believe is one of the most popular in the total package.
“While it was a reduction in dollars from the original $3.5 trillion package, it was not a reduction in values,” Pelosi said in a letter to her caucus earlier in the day.
Without a resolution on that spending plan, Democrats remain unable to deliver a final successful vote on a second, roughly $1.2 trillion measure to improve the nation’s infrastructure. Liberals in the House have held up that package as leverage while negotiations continue with Manchin and other moderates over the rest of Biden’s economic agenda. But centrists have grown more frustrated with the delays, particularly in the aftermath of the adverse election in Virginia.
“I think there’s a lot of exasperation,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) “I’ll just speak for me … you know, we had a really great product for infrastructure that everyone agrees on, it’s bipartisan. The president ran on bipartisanship. Let’s pass it.”
Manchin this week urged liberals to loosen their blockade on the infrastructure bill given the bipartisan support for the public works spending deal, which he helped negotiate. Other centrists, including Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), in recent days had stressed that swifter House passage might have provided a boost for Democrats in his home state — potentially giving McAuliffe the edge he would have needed to prevail.
Speaking to reporters as he entered a private meeting of party lawmakers, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) said he would not play the “blame game” as to whether the holdups had hurt the party in his home state, where incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy clung to a narrow lead. But Gottheimer did maintain that it was time for Congress to move forward, telling reporters: “I think the American people want us to act and get things done.”
Paul Kane, Heather Long and Dino Grandoni contributed to this report.