Democrats torn on Biden’s bipartisan pledge

Democrats are torn between President Biden’s pledge to bring bipartisanship back to Washington and his party’s desire to pass big and bold new policies.

The White House and Democratic leaders in Congress will need to unite their restless colleagues in order to pass Biden’s next legislative goal. 

Brewing plans at the White House to spend upward of $4 trillion on infrastructure and raise taxes by more than $3 trillion will spark a ferocious battle with Republicans, who are already closing ranks.

Democratic centrists are pushing for the parties to come together to enact bills on infrastructure and other issues, but that appears unlikely.

Expanded background checks for all gun sales, an issue that polls with broad public support, is looming as a divisive issue as Republicans don’t want to expand them beyond commercial sales. Biden’s priorities for election reform, the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, also face GOP filibusters and aren’t expected to pass. 

Some Democrats, such as Sen. Chris Coons (Del.), a key Biden ally, want to break the infrastructure package up into two pieces, and pass a smaller bill focused on traditional priorities — roads, bridges and railways — with Republican votes. 

But progressives, led by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), worry that breaking off the most popular and bipartisan infrastructure priorities and passing them on their own would give Republicans and maybe some centrist Democrats an excuse to oppose a second package that includes free community college and universal prekindergarten.

Some political and policy experts say Biden’s brand as a pragmatist and centrist depends on his ability to get bipartisan support for his infrastructure package.

“It’s critical. He did promise to be bipartisan, and so I think it’s critical he follow through on that. And infrastructure is the perfect way to do that. It wouldn’t even take that much effort to do it and be bipartisan,” said Michele Nellenbach, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Nellenbach noted that Biden promised during the 2020 election to help heal the country, which makes it important for him to persuade Republican and Democratic lawmakers to compromise.

“It’s what the country needs. The partisanship just seems to have reached a fever-pitch level here and we need something to bring everyone back together and something to show we are a country that can do things together,” she added. 

Ben Barnes, a Democratic fundraiser, strategist and former lieutenant governor of Texas, said “it is important” for Biden to score some major bipartisan accomplishments.

“Those of us who are part of the old school and remember bipartisanship have not forgotten about it, and I don’t think President Biden has forgotten about it,” he said. “If anybody can get it done, he can get it done.”

Biden emphasized his continued outreach efforts to Republicans during his first press conference last week.

“When is the last time a president invited the opposite party down at least a half a dozen times to talk about issues?” he said. “We’re working together on a bunch of things.”

At the same time, Biden is under pressure from Democrats in Congress to deliver as large an infrastructure package as possible and hike taxes on wealthy individuals, families and corporations to pay for it — something that falls flat with Republicans.

Warren and Sanders have led the chorus of progressive voices calling for the wealthy to “pay their share.”

“It is not a radical idea to demand the wealthiest among us pay their fair share and that we put an end to a rigged tax code that disproportionately burdens working people,” Sanders said in a statement Monday calling for Congress to begin taxing unrealized capital gains that are passed on at death.

A proposal floated by Sanders, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and other Democrats to close the so-called stepped-up basis loophole would raise around $400 billion over 10 years.

Biden’s team in February circulated a proposal to spend $3 trillion on infrastructure and offset the cost by raising taxes by $1 trillion. His plan has since become significantly more ambitious amid calls by fellow Democrats to deliver “big, bold” change.

Democratic and Republican policy experts predict Biden won’t get any GOP votes for an infrastructure package that raises taxes significantly.

Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a Democratic think tank, said “the infrastructure proposals could get support well beyond Democrats, conceivably, and as soon as you get to the pay-fors, Republicans drop off.”

He said Democrats could potentially move an infrastructure package separately from a tax reform package to help offset its cost.

“There are different paths. Do they move separately at first and come together later?” he suggested.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) office announced Monday that top aides have pressed the Senate parliamentarian to allow them to move two more reconciliation packages this year, which could allow Democrats to vote on infrastructure spending and tax increases to pay for it separately. This would also allow Schumer to pass two more bills through the upper chamber with simple majorities instead of 60 votes.

Schumer, however, is warning he won’t hold up the Democratic agenda to woo Republicans.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), a conservative advocacy group, predicted Biden’s proposal to raise taxes to pay for infrastructure won’t get any Republican support.

“There isn’t a Republican vote for a tax increase,” he said, pointing out that about 85 percent to 90 percent of Republicans in Congress have signed an ATR-spearheaded pledge not to increase taxes.

Regardless, GOP opposition to tax increases is even broader than that figure, according to Norquist.

“You don’t have to say this person violated the pledge because they voted for a tax increase. All you have to point out is they are a Republican who voted for a tax increase and people go, ‘goddamned liar,’ ” he said.

Democratic aides and strategists are split on whether Biden needs to actually rack up bipartisan accomplishments or whether he just needs to make an effort to work across the aisle to fulfill his campaign promise.

Some Democrats say if Biden can show that Republicans aren’t willing to join him on popular initiatives, such as expanding background checks, then he and his allies can argue the lack of GOP support for other initiatives such as infrastructure or voting rights legislation is due to political obstructionism. 

Senate Democrats were surprised they didn’t get a single Republican vote in either chamber of Congress for the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, even though it included an array of proposals that Republicans supported, such as $1,400 stimulus checks — an idea that former President Trump backed last year. It also included  more money for vaccine distribution, school reopenings and small-business loans.

“It would be great to get something done in a bipartisan way, but I think a lot of [Democratic senators] were surprised there was no willingness to do COVID from Republicans, none at all,” said a Senate Democratic aide.

Given the lack of support for Biden’s relief plan despite his 75-percent job approval rating in responding to the pandemic, some Democrats say there’s little chance he’ll muster any bipartisan support for infrastructure.

“Is there any bill on infrastructure that gets 10 Republicans?” asked one Democratic strategist speaking on background, citing the number needed to reach 60 votes and overcome a filibuster in the evenly divided Senate.

The strategist said Biden’s best bet is to put pressure on Republicans to join him instead of diluting his proposals in hopes of picking up a few GOP votes and argued it would be a mistake to break up Biden’s $3 trillion to $4 trillion infrastructure proposal

“Why would we want to give Republicans a free pass on the most popular things so they can just beat us up on the things they think are less popular? We want it to be all together. If you’re not going to vote with us, you’re not going to get to vote on just the popular stuff,” the strategist said.

Tags Bernie Sanders Charles Schumer Chris Coons Chris Van Hollen Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden John Lewis
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