Democrats struggle to gain steam on Biden spending plan

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a press conference to discuss reconciliation and Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) recent comments on Oct. 6, 2021.
Julia Nikhinson

Democrats are struggling to break through on their sweeping social spending bill amid a laser-like focus on the price tag and high-profile squabbles.

Democratic leadership has set an end-of-the-month deadline to get both the spending package and a Senate-passed infrastructure bill to President Biden, as they try to turn the page on weeks of infighting that has spotlighted internal divisions and thrown the party’s legislative agenda into limbo.

The effort to show momentum comes as congressional Democrats and Biden have seen their poll numbers slip as they creep deeper into the year. And while the ideas behind the spending bill are popular with voters, a CBS News poll released this week found that only 10 percent of Americans knew a lot about the specifics and 57 percent indicated they didn’t know any details about the multitrillion-dollar proposal.

“Part of our problem — I can say this as a Democrat — is that we haven’t talked enough about the impact on people’s lives,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who argued that the issue dates back to messaging around the March coronavirus relief bill.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), asked if Democrats need to do a better job selling the spending package, said the news media should do a better job of explaining it.

“I think you all could do a better job of selling it, to be very frank with you, because every time I come here, I go through the list. … It is a vast bill, it has a lot in it and we will have to continue to make sure the public does. But whether they know it or not, they overwhelmingly support it,” Pelosi told reporters.

Democrats argue part of their problem is an intense media focus on the price tag for the reconciliation bill, rather than the potential benefits for residents. 

The CBS News poll found that the potential cost of the bill topped a list of what Americans had heard about the legislation. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they had heard about $3.5 trillion in spending, in line with the 58 percent who said they had heard about tax increases for high-income earners. Those two figures are significantly above the 40 percent who said they had heard about lowering drug prices under Medicare or expanding Medicare to cover hearing, vision and dental — two big priorities for Democrats.

During a recent discussion with reporters about changes to the top-line figure, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) argued that reporters were getting pulled back into “the game.”

“Maybe your question should be, ‘Does democracy survive if the Congress doesn’t do what the American people want?’ ” Sanders said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), asked during an MSNBC interview about the top-line figure, said that was “absolutely the wrong question” and the “wrong way to go about this.”

“It is, ‘What do we need to get done?’ We need child care in America, we need to expand health care coverage in America, and we need to take a big whack at the climate crisis,” she added.

The struggle to keep the focus on the benefits of the bill, rather than the overall size of the legislation, comes as Biden’s poll numbers have slipped. More than 49 percent of respondents disapprove of Biden’s handling of the job, compared to 44.5 percent who approve, according to a FiveThirtyEight compilation of recent polling.

A growing number of voters think congressional Democrats are underperforming expectations. Twenty-four percent of Democrats said in June that Democratic lawmakers had accomplished less than expected, compared to 37 percent who said the same in October, according to a Morning Consult-Politico poll.

Democrats aren’t just struggling to drive home the details of their plan to voters; they’ve also been unable to secure breakthroughs with each other that would put Biden’s bill on a glide path.

Congressional Democrats previously cleared a budget resolution that allows them to pass a spending bill of up to $3.5 trillion without needing to break a 60-vote legislative filibuster in the Senate, meaning they can bypass Republicans.

But since then, Democrats have been locked in constant, headline-grabbing rounds of infighting, including the White House vs. Congress, the House vs. Senate, moderates vs. leadership and moderates vs. progressives.

Biden and congressional leaders are trying to find a way to bridge a multitrillion-dollar gap between the $3.5 trillion ceiling for how high Democrats and moderates can go. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key centrist, has said his top-line is $1.5 trillion.

Asked about the final dollar amount on Tuesday, Pelosi indicated that those talks are ongoing.

“If there are fewer dollars to spend, there are choices to be made,” Pelosi said. “I mean, we’re still talking about a couple of trillion dollars, but it’s not — you know, it’s much less.” 

The White House has thrown out a range of roughly $2 trillion, an area where several Senate Democrats have predicted they’ll ultimately end up.

But that still leaves Democrats with painful decisions about what to include in their slimmed-down bill, with some interested in focusing on a smaller number of programs that they can invest heavily in, while progressives are pushing to go broader even if it means approving those programs for a shorter period.

“I’m of a mind that you can argue either side. But I would argue that if it’s a good program, popular with the American people, they’ll find a way to extend it,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat. “What we need is a number and then we need to do our best.” 

Manchin has outlined a small package that is centered around reforms to the 2017 GOP tax law, as well as help for children and seniors. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told CNN that he would prefer “fewer programs for a longer period of time,” adding that there was “risk” that a bill filled with more than a dozen programs could be confusing to explain.

But progressives, while stressing that they are willing to negotiate, are pushing for Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to be more specific about what they could live with. 

“The time for us to be negotiating with ourselves is over, and I think it is absolutely incumbent on the two senators … to start telling us what they want,” Sanders said.

And they are doubling down on their push to put a smaller amount of money into more programs, rather than dropping items from the bill altogether. Progressives view the reconciliation bill as the best chance for getting many of the party’s priorities through Congress.

“Our members have made clear that they support the idea of keeping our five priority areas,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told reporters, “but if we need to cut some of them back to a fewer number of years we would be willing to do that.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Bob Casey Dick Durbin Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Joe Manchin Jon Tester Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal
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