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.
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.
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.
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.
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.