Fizzling legislative agenda leaves Democrats wondering about midterms 

Democrats once hailed Build Back Better as the policy that could help them win the midterms.  

But as even the possibility of a scaled-back version of President Biden’s signature legislation fizzles in the 50-50 Senate, some are wondering if the president will have anything comparable to campaign on as the election season inches closer. 

The White House considers the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law passed last fall as a major legislative accomplishment. They also see Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill as a win. And they say the fight over some version of Build Back Better isn’t over. 

But some in the party question whether those feats are enough to energize voters, particularly after Democrats spent months last year talking about lowering child care costs, paid leave and extending the now-expired temporary expansion of the child tax credit as an answer to the pressures families are feeling from inflation.  

“It gives them fewer weapons in the fight to retain the control of the House and Senate going into the midterms,” said Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist and director of the public policy program at Hunter College. 

Another Democratic strategist added: “For the longest time, all they talked about was Build Back Better and how it would be this incredible thing. And guess what? It imploded, and now what do we have? Infrastructure?”  

Other Democrats insist the party has plenty to tout on the campaign trail in the coming months and should focus on those legislative wins. 

“Between the Recovery Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, there are a lot of great policy wins in those bills,” said Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau, referring first to the coronavirus relief package. “We just need to deconstruct it, because most people don’t remember what was accomplished.” 

“I would urge lawmakers to not bitch about what wasn’t in the bill but to celebrate and promote what is in the bill. We tend to obsess on what we did not get done,” Mollineau said. 

“In Washington, D.C., I think the sentiment will be, ‘You have the White House, the Senate and the House and you couldn’t pass the entirety of your agenda,’” he added. “Outside D.C., it’s not as if the American people are waiting with bated breath, but they do want to see policies that are going to help them.”  

White House officials say they haven’t given up on passing Biden’s signature domestic proposal. But even Democrats who have been optimistic about passing some version of Build Back Better are losing hope as the November midterms draw nearer.  

Former White House press secretary Jen Psaki singled out the failure to pass Build Back Better as one of her disappointments during a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters earlier this month just before she left the West Wing.  

“There are things you would have liked to have seen done that are not done yet. There were many moments, as you all know, where we thought Build Back Better, the reconciliation package, our plan to lower costs — whatever you want to call it — would have been done,” Psaki said. “Getting that done, yes, would have felt really good. Obviously hopefully we’ll still do it.”  

During a Center for American Progress event Friday, White House senior adviser Gene Sperling expressed regret at the inability for Democrats to pass another extension of the child tax credit — which they envisioned as part of the Build Back Better bill. 

“I’m heartbroken that at this point we haven’t extended what was done in the American Rescue Plan and will not give up hope,” he said. “But what did we show? We showed that we could deliver a monthly child tax credit.” 

The White House has made a deliberate effort this year to focus on touting what Congress has passed under Biden’s watch: the COVID-19 relief package and bipartisan infrastructure bill. 

Biden is getting out on the road regularly to sell his accomplishments, something he has acknowledged he regrets not doing more.  

Biden told a group of supporters at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser last month that he was repeating a mistake from the Obama years by not talking enough about what the administration has done.  

“I remember saying to Barack after we passed the Affordable Care Act, I said, ‘Let’s take a victory lap.’ He said, ‘We don’t have time. We don’t have time,’” Biden told the group in Portland, Ore. “But guess what? No one knew what was in it. They didn’t know why they had what they had.” 

Biden will sometimes reference pieces of Build Back Better in public speeches, but they’re rarely the central focus of his remarks. Administration officials have done away with the Build Back Better branding entirely, instead opting for a “Building a Better America” tagline that encapsulates Biden’s policy agenda, including the infrastructure bill.  

For the time being, the White House is eyeing another immediate bipartisan legislative win: a bill aimed at boosting domestic production of semiconductors.  

Different versions of the bill passed the House and Senate, and it recently went to conference. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said this week she hoped Congress would pass the legislation, the Competes Act, before the July 4 recess.  

“Competes is a cost-cutting bill,” Pelosi said at a Thursday press conference. 

The Build Back Better agenda was envisioned as getting to Biden’s desk through a complicated budgetary process that would have prevented a GOP filibuster. It was torpedoed when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he’d oppose it in December over inflation worries. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), another Democratic centrist, had also been an impediment because of her opposition to higher taxes as part of the plan. 

Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) have continued to talk, but there’s little optimism a deal will be reached. 

Democrats express a mixture of regret and helplessness over its fate. 

“There is a lot of stuff in Build Back Better that is extremely popular, that we said we would pass and wanted to campaign on,” said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale. “And it’s not just progressive members. There’s a ton in here every part of our caucus wants in their districts.   

“But there’s really nothing most of us can do right now except yell ‘Serenity now!’ because it’s basically just up to Manchin and Sinema at this point,” Vale said. “And if nothing else passes, we do have a pretty good list of things that have been done so far and then the main thing left to do is how much Biden gets done with executive orders after BBB is officially dead.”  

Vale pointed to Biden’s former partner as proof: “Obama got quite a lot done when he picked up his pen, as he liked to say.” 

Tags Biden Build Back Better infrastructure bill Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin Rodell Mollineau
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