Joe Biden is tantalizingly close to fulfilling what supporters see as the historic promise of his presidency in the coming days, at a critical moment for his social policy transformation at home and his hopes of reclaiming US leadership overseas.
After weeks of feuding between moderate and progressive Democrats and his agenda’s several brushes with extinction, the President’s double play of social spending and a bipartisan infrastructure program may finally come to fruition this week. Democrats hope to agree on a framework on a trimmed down package of social, health care and education programs in order to lift a House progressive blockade on a vote on the bipartisan bill fixing roads, bridges and railroads.
“I think we’re pretty much there now,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” on Sunday. A Democratic source told CNN’s Manu Raju the goal is now for the House to have a vote on the infrastructure package on Wednesday or Thursday and send it to Biden’s desk. The exact content of the final social spending bill is not yet known, since negotiations on paring back a more ambitious program to win moderate votes have been taking place behind closed doors. But Democrats still appear to be determined to provide free pre-kindergarten education, an extension of Medicare, home care for seniors and more affordable child care. Another uncertainty is the way the final package will play with the most progressive members of the House who had wanted a much larger spending blueprint and had held up the infrastructure bill as a result in prolonged standoffs within the Democratic Party.
If Democrats finally agree on the makeup of the bills, and Biden manages to include billions of dollars in funding to slow global warming, he will get a huge boost on a foreign trip beginning Thursday that includes the G20 summit in Rome and the United Nations climate summit in Scotland. A strong environmental component of the bill is crucial to Biden’s credibility as he seeks to put the US back at the front of the global campaign to save the planet — one of his top foreign policy goals — and would put pressure on other top polluting nations to follow suit.
But Democrats are struggling to come up with replacement provisions after one of the moderate senators responsible for scaling back the package, Joe Manchin from coal-producing West Virginia, derailed a $150 billion incentive scheme designed to wean utilities onto renewable forms of electricity generation. In a further sign that Biden is driving the roller coaster drama over the bills toward a conclusion, he hosted Manchin at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, on Sunday. The two long-standing friends were joined at the breakfast meeting by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and continued to make progress, the White House said.
The social care package is expected to be far smaller than a previous $3.5 trillion proposal and the $6 trillion top-line number originally called for by Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who chairs the Senate Budget Committee. Sources told CNN Sunday that Manchin was on board for $1.75 trillion. The shrinking of the bill means it will be shorn of a number of popular proposals that Biden campaigned on — including free community college, which is a painful concession since first lady Jill Biden has long worked in the sector. But as Biden explained in a CNN town hall on Thursday evening, compromises must be made to pass the measure, even if there is not sufficient support among Democrats for all of the cherished programs.
Even so, the passage of several huge infrastructure and social care bills would secure one of the most significant legislative legacies of any modern president. The programs could fulfill Biden’s goal of using government power to tilt the balance of the economy back to working people. Original plans included funding for home care for sick and elderly Americans, paid family leave, free pre-kindergarten schooling and a flurry of other programs Democrats say will create jobs. And, if actually passed this week, the legislative victory might even give Virginia Democrat Terry McAuliffe a late boost in his gubernatorial campaign, which has been hit by lethargy among progressive voters, ahead of the November 2 content.
“It is less than we had…projected to begin with, but it’s still bigger than anything we have ever done in terms of addressing the needs of America’s working families,” Pelosi told Tapper.
Another promise that could be kept
The $1 trillion infrastructure bill, meanwhile, would honor Biden’s inaugural call for national unity and for Republicans and Democrats to find areas to cooperate despite gaping ideological divides. One of the core principles of Biden’s presidency and his effort to tame the populist anger that led to the Trump presidency is to show that government can be an effective force for good in the lives of working Americans denied the benefits of several decades of economic expansion.
Passing any large bill in an era when the country is bitterly polarized and operates on the basis of typically small congressional majorities is highly unusual. Yet Biden could walk away with nearly $3 trillion in infrastructure and social spending bills on top of an earlier $1.9 trillion Covid-19 rescue bill. Such a list of achievements may go some way to tempering Democratic angst after a brutal summer in which the President’s stature took a pounding over the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, a surge in coronavirus infections, rising inflation, peaking gas prices, a mismatched labor market and a supply chain crunch.
It would also allow him to argue to Americans that he and his party had made good on their campaign promises and leveraged a moment when they control power in Washington to make significant political change.
Until now, there has been vast mistrust between House progressives and moderates in the Senate, including Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who is opposed to raising the corporate tax rate and the top marginal rate of income tax for individuals, CNN has reported. Such hikes were originally seen as critical to paying for the social spending plan. Pelosi told CNN Sunday that potential alternative financing for the bill could involve a billionaires’ tax and IRS tax enforcement.
The internal Democratic disconnect thwarted a previous attempt by the House to pass the infrastructure bill on the basis of a separate agreement by senators on the content of the spending plan. But there are signs that Biden’s intense role in the negotiations in recent days may have eased that impasse.
“My view is that the President’s word, saying, ‘I have the commitment of 50 senators, and those 50 senators are going to vote for this bill and here are the details, that that’s good enough,'” Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat from California, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I don’t think proceduralism will hold us back. If the President gives his word and has a clear commitment, that will be good enough.”
Passing huge bills comes with risks for Democrats
Biden’s tough summer, which has taken a toll on his approval ratings, is one of a number of factors that suggest that even if he passes a multi-trillion dollar agenda, any political payoff may not arrive in time to save Democrats, who are facing historically treacherous midterm elections a year from now — not to mention a tight Virginia governor’s race in just over a week.
To begin with, the bitter Democratic infighting over the packages, and particularly the top-line number, has overshadowed the transformation of social care that they contain. And given the secrecy surrounding the negotiations, no one outside the talks has a clear notion of what will be included in a final version. So the bill has so far been a hard sell politically. A compromise plan valued at around $1.75 trillion will also disappoint many progressive voters and could dampen their enthusiasm at the polls next year.
It also remains to be shown whether embarking on a massive spending program truly reflects the will of voters, who, after all, produced a 50-50 Senate in the last election — in which Democrats can call on Vice President Kamala Harris’ deciding vote — and gave the party an advantage of a only handful of seats in the House. Such slim margins hardly represent a massive mandate for change in normal times.
Republicans are already making such an argument the centerpiece of their campaigns for midterms in which they have high hopes of winning the House and the Senate and effectively preventing Biden from any other big legislative achievements for the remainder of his term ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
“Democrats are having an incredibly hard time getting where they’d like to be,” Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “They’ve decided that they’ve got a mandate when there’s clearly no mandate.”
It may also be months or even years, before the spending included in the bills really filters through to regular Americans and begins to change their lives in a manner that is sufficiently tangible to shape their political decisions. It took years, for example, for the Affordable Care Act, passed by ex-President Barack Obama when Biden was vice president, to become popular and to embed itself in American society. In the short-term, passing that measure, which was easily portrayed by Republicans as a liberal spending and power grab — just as Biden’s current plans are now cast — helped cost Democrats their edge in Congress.
But in the modern era, with voters generally in a disgruntled mood and with power changing often between Democrats and Republicans in Washington, it is becoming even more vital for each party to maximize their achievement in the fleeting years when they are in control. Biden could go a long way toward realizing that goal in the next week.