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Analysis: It's time for Democrats to choose between limited success and total failure

5October 2021

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If President Joe Biden’s multitrillion-dollar social reform, climate and infrastructure agenda is to survive, his divided party must make unpleasant decisions about which programs to fund and which to drop to reach a compromise deal.

As they seek to preserve the President’s ambitious effort to rebuild the economy for working Americans, Democratic lawmakers also face a parallel dilemma: Do they finance all the sweeping health care, education, welfare and climate programs for a shorter duration than planned? Or should they pick a few priorities to bed down in national life over the long term?

The internal Democratic showdown that led to the legislative stalemate, which crystallized last week, clarified two things. First, it cemented power centers on the party’s progressive and moderate wings, neither of which was willing to blink. Second, it established that the tiny Democratic majority in the 50-50 Senate cannot support a spending plan at Biden’s hoped-for price of $3.5 trillion.

“My objective is to get everything that I campaigned on passed eventually,” the President said before heading home for more bargaining in Washington.

“It won’t all happen at once and so we’ll get a compromise between the folks who are supporting strongly the infrastructure and the human infrastructure. We’ll get a compromise,” Biden promised.

The good news for Democrats is there does seem to be some movement after the entrenched and embittered exchanges of last week forced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pull a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill because progressives were holding out for the full $3.5 trillion spending splash in separate legislation.

Progressives have now accepted the need to clip the top-line dollar value, after consultations with the President, who has mooted a figure just above or below $2 trillion, sources told CNN. Biden also said Tuesday that he thinks West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — one of the two Democratic senators, along with Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, blocking the larger bill — might raise his own $1.5 trillion limit.

Tough choices

But next steps are about more than placating House progressives angry at conservative Democrats and narrowing on a number, as difficult as that still is.

A spending package around $2 trillion would be a third smaller than the $3.5 version progressives fought for last week and a sliver of the $6 trillion that independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders originally targeted. That means progressives must accept that their expansive dreams will be clipped owing to what many see as the self-defeating and ill-defined objections of Manchin and Sinema.

That reality will trigger battles over competing priorities — many of which are non-negotiable or unacceptable for specific lawmakers.

At its most crude level, this may come down to choosing between funding free prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds or two years of community college for young adults. Expanding Medicare to add hearing and dental benefits for seniors — a long-term Sanders goal — might come at the expense of another lawmaker’s pet program. Can Democrats still afford to offer home health care for sick and elderly Americans? Will some of the efforts to build a green economy have to go, even though that could doom next month’s United Nations global climate summit in Scotland? Hovering over these or other unpleasant belt-tightening scenarios will be the possibility, unpalatable for progressives, that Manchin and Sinema may still have an effective veto.

These decisions will be painful not just because they will exacerbate divides in the party that grew further last week. They will also help define the character, ideological positioning and future electoral strategies of the Washington Democratic Party itself. This is a reckoning due ever since Biden’s presidential primary campaign, when he straddled the gap between progressives and moderates, giving each wing sufficient reason to believe he was on their side.

Campaigns show what political parties aspire to be — and Sanders’ success in two losing but significant presidential runs did pull Democrats left toward big government action to reshape the economy, a goal Biden shares, though with a less radical approach than the democratic socialist.

But governing is definitional in another way: It reveals the policies that a party can drive into law — in the end a more important historical and legacy adjudicator when presidencies are assessed.

So far, in the tussle between the left and the center in the Democratic Party over his $1 trillion infrastructure and $3.5 trillion spending plans, Biden has been fairly hands off in public, even if he’s very active behind the scenes. He seemed to hope that days of debate would catalyze a natural gathering around a sweet spot that rival factions could accept.

Now he has little option but to become far more assertive in charting the outline of the eventual deal. This will test his own political dexterity, and he has a lot more on the line than in the days of his self-fabled congressional deal-making as a senator and vice president.

It will also put Democrats on the spot over how much they want his term to succeed and whether they are willing to compromise some of their own hard-held positions for that wider goal. It’s an especially acute question with Democrats facing historically tough midterm elections next year with their President a little dinged up politically after a tough summer. Their minds may also be concentrated by the sight of an increasingly authoritarian ex-President Donald Trump making moves ahead of a potential 2024 campaign.

The compromises that come with power

House progressives last week proved their new clout. Now they must learn the compromises and obligations that come with power as they trim their goals in search of the deal Biden wants.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal of Washington state advised her troops on a call not to focus on the top-line number of the spending package but on their priorities and how they are structured.

CNN’s Annie Grayer reported that Jayapal’s preference is to shorten the funding horizon for some programs rather than eradicate them altogether or means-test them — a device Manchin favors.

The logic here is that once social spending programs are implemented and popular it would be hard for even a Republican-led Congress to ditch them. And future Democratic majorities and presidents would be able to expand on the broad foundation set by the Biden administration. But the Trump-era GOP doesn’t always turn on logic. It would be a big gamble to rely on Republicans, who are keener on cutting personal and business taxes, to preserve what could still be the most sweeping social expansion in decades. The fact that the current Senate GOP is willing to risk a US debt default rather than help extend the government borrowing authority might serve as a reality check to some liberals.

Another hazy area is the willingness of Manchin and Sinema to budge. Manchin has deeply held views, formed by the idiosyncrasies of his own small, pro-Trump state — and may not appreciate pressures felt by Democrats elsewhere. The coal-state senator has already said he’s uncomfortable with climate change provisions that are a must-have for progressives. He says the inclusion in the spending package of the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding for most abortions, is a red line.
But keeping it out is a red line for House liberals. Still, Manchin indicated to CNN’s Manu Raju on Tuesday that he hadn’t ruled out a $1.9 trillion level for the final package despite his reservations.
Sinema is harder to read, as she has been less specific in public about which particular programs she wants funded or rejected, but she’s adamant she won’t support a $3.5 trillion bill. The Arizona senator’s reaction to a weekend of criticism from fellow Democrats — even in her home state, where she was followed into a restroom by protesting activists — could also factor into her calculations.

A compromise is possible only if both sides want it. And in the deadlocked Senate, her vote is priceless. Like Manchin, Sinema could dictate terms that even progressives who are reluctantly ready to trim their aspirations may still view as beyond the pale.

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