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Dems second-guessing their strategic decisions

Exasperated Senate Democrats are questioning the strategy of President Biden and Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) after many months of negotiation with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) failed to achieve two of their biggest priorities.  

In the midst of an intense heat wave in the American Midwest and Europe, Democratic senators are openly questioning if their leadership should have given more urgency to climate legislation by bringing a bill to the floor within the first six months of taking control of the White House and Senate.  

“I think it was a mistake to wait when we did the American Rescue Plan and not do the climate provisions at the time,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), whose home state was ravaged by its largest recorded wildfire last month.  

Heinrich on Tuesday expressed frustration that negotiations with Manchin on a budget reconciliation package dragged on for nearly a year and ended without producing a deal on tax reform or legislation to curb carbon emissions.  

“Time is what we have here, and especially time in the majority. So it’s not fair to string people along for a year and not come to a conclusion. That’s just not an appropriate way to negotiate,” he said, expressing his frustration with Manchin specifically. 

There’s also second-guessing of the fateful decision to split Biden’s hard infrastructure priorities — spending for roads, bridges, public transit, ports and airports — from his climate and social spending goals.  

Biden, Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) decided last year to advance a traditional infrastructure bill under regular Senate rules by negotiating with Republicans, postponing action on the social spending and climate proposals included in the broader Build Back Better agenda.  

The plan was to pass a traditional infrastructure bill with Republican votes to score a bipartisan accomplishment for Biden and then follow it up with a budget reconciliation measure passed with only Democratic votes including more controversial elements of the president’s agenda.  

Some Democrats think splitting up Biden’s traditional and human infrastructure agenda into two tracks was a mistake.  

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has made climate change a top priority, said “in retrospect” it was a misstep.

Democrats’ hopes of passing ambitious climate legislation this year crumbled after Manchin told Schumer on Thursday that he would not support passing a budget reconciliation measure before Labor Day with tax reform and climate provisions — despite suggesting passing just such a package in March.  

Schumer confirmed Tuesday that Senate Democrats will now move forward on a more modest budget reconciliation bill focused on prescription drug reform and a two-year extension of Affordable Care Act premium subsidies. Schumer spent much of last year promising “big, bold” legislation.

“It’s pretty clear that looking back we should have just held the bipartisan infrastructure bill. That was my position at the time, but there were representations that we would be able to finish the process on the Build Back Better bill. That has not happened,” Markey said.  

He said the climate provisions should have been part of the traditional infrastructure bill that Manchin was eager last year to pass.  

The bipartisan infrastructure bill delivered $6 billion in new investment to West Virginia, a huge win for Manchin that he touted to his home state’s press corps.  

Schumer said last year “the two tracks of infrastructure” — roads, bridges and hard infrastructure on one track and climate provisions, spending on child care and universal pre-kindergarten on another — would “move in tandem.”   

Biden promised in June 2021 that he would not sign the bipartisan infrastructure bill without a budget reconciliation bill that would fight climate change, provide money for child care and pre-kindergarten, extend the child tax credit and reform the tax code.  

“If only one comes to me, I’m not signing it. It’s in tandem,” Biden insisted. 

At the time, several Senate Democrats expressed skepticism over the dual-track strategy. They worried that splitting off traditional infrastructure would cost them leverage over Manchin and centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).  

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said she viewed the popular hard infrastructure programs as the locomotive that would pull along climate and child care reforms.  

“I want to see the details of how they’re planning to make sure that the climate issues and child care issues don’t get left behind. We can’t have the train leave the station and critical parts are left on the platform,” Warren said last year in response to the plan to first move a traditional infrastructure bill without climate and social spending.  

Warren on Tuesday said those fears were confirmed by the failure to strike a deal with Manchin on tax reform, climate, child care or other agenda items.  

She said it would have been smart to keep “all the luggage on the same train.”  

“We needed to stay together as a team to get all the things done at once,” she said. “It’s very important to do drug negotiations, and I’m glad we’re doing that, but we also need to attack the climate crisis, and we need to be putting resources into universal child care.”  

“I strongly felt the two bills should go together, and I lobbied hard for them to be welded together, but we face the reality of 50 votes [in the Senate Democratic Conference],” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said. “And there were a lot of votes for the infrastructure bill and at the same time there was a dialogue in which there were 50 Democrats saying we will work together to get this second bill done.”

Other Senate Democrats, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, also said they opposed splitting traditional infrastructure from proposals to curb carbon emissions, such as tax incentives for renewable energy.  

“I was among those opposed to splitting the bills, but on the other hand it’s possible that we’d still be negotiating the infrastructure bill,” said a Democratic senator. “There was a lot of discussion about delinking, and that’s why were assured we were going to have a two-step process.”  

Once last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill reached the House, centrist House Democrats and the White House put pressure on Pelosi to get it to Biden’s desk, even though the Senate was still working on a budget reconciliation bill that was supposed to include climate and human infrastructure spending.  

House Democrats felt they needed to rack up accomplishments after Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race, and so they passed the hard infrastructure legislation even though they weren’t close to a deal with Manchin on climate or new social spending programs.  

Manchin revealed last week that he never seriously considered supporting hundreds of billions in new spending for expanded child care, universal pre-kindergarten, long-term home health care and other progressive social spending priorities.  

“The Build Back Better, way back when, was a complete social realignment,” Manchin told West Virginia broadcaster Hoppy Kercheval on Friday. “I was very clear when the president and I talked. I said, ‘Mr. President, this piece of legislation is going to change our country from when John Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what can you do for your country” — that piece of legislation will change us to, “How much more can my country do for me?” ’ ”  

Manchin also has repeatedly expressed concern this year about inflation, which has skyrocketed since last summer.

In December, progressive leader Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) accused Manchin of a “lack of integrity” for not signing off on a climate and social spending deal after months of negotiation. 

Schumer on Tuesday responded to criticism that he let the climate talks with Manchin drag on for too long.  

Asked if it was a mistake to let the negotiations go on as long as they did, Schumer responded, “On something as important as climate, an existential threat to the country, I will make every, every effort, even when it seems to be an uphill fight, because it’s so important.” 

Tags 2022 midterms Biden Charles Schumer Democrats Ed Markey Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Joe Manchin Leadership Martin Heinrich Policy questioning Senate Democrats strategy
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