Democrats struggle to sell Biden plan amid feuding

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) arrives for a press conference after the weekly policy luncheon on Tuesday, October 19, 2021.
Greg Nash

Democrats are trying to ramp up their sales pitch of a sweeping social spending bill that is central to President Biden’s domestic agenda, hoping to break through with voters amid weeks of high-profile feuds.

After watching fights within the party take up much of the political oxygen, Democrats say they need to do a better job explaining the benefits of the bill to a public that has largely heard more about its price tag.

The effort to shift the focus from internal drama to making a direct appeal to Americans comes as Biden’s poll numbers have slipped. And while parts of the plan are popular, surveys have raised questions about how closely Americans are actually following the details of Biden’s signature legislative item. 

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said Democrats “got caught up” in the discussions over what the top-line figure would be amid big divisions between moderates and progressives.

“We should have stuck with four or five basics and said these are our goals we’re going to try to reach,” he said.

Asked about splits within the caucus, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) argued that Democrats should be focused on selling the bill to voters.

“We need to be out there explaining this to the American people. Every single day that we’re consumed by internal debates and internal arguments is a day that we’re not actively selling this,” Murphy said. 

The push to focus more on making the case to voters about the merits of the plan — and dipping less into the internal jockeying that has dominated Washington for months — comes as polling has sent up a red flag that details of the bill are struggling to sink in with the public.

A CBS News poll released this month found that only 10 percent of Americans said they knew “a lot” about the plan, while a third knew at least some details. A majority, 57 percent, indicated they didn’t know any specifics.

The aspect voters had heard the most about, according to the poll, was the potential $3.5 trillion top-line figure that Democrats set up as their spending ceiling as part of a budget resolution they passed earlier this year. 

Asked about the polling on how few Americans knew a lot of details about the plan, Durbin added: “I don’t doubt that one bit.” 

“Our fault. We oversold it and underperformed for too long. But now we get a chance to close it the right way,” Durbin said. 

A separate CNN poll released last week found that only 25 percent of respondents thought their family would be better off if Democrats pass both the reconciliation bill and a smaller roughly $1 trillion infrastructure measure. And only 16 percent said that they had been following news of the Build Back Better Act very closely, compared to 42 percent who said they haven’t followed it too closely or at all. 

In addition to switching their focus, Democrats are eager to quickly close the door on the high-profile haggling. Though Democrats are poised to miss a self-imposed deadline to get both the reconciliation bill and the infrastructure bill to Biden’s desk by the end of the month, Senate Democrats are aiming to get a deal on a reconciliation framework that would be supported by the end of this week to prove they can deliver.

“There is an extraordinary, extraordinary effort going on in order to get this done now. That’s what I heard from people at home. They said we sent you guys to Washington, D.C., to deliver on these important issues that we care about,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). 

Wyden said that back in Oregon, “nobody asked me about top lines. Nobody asked me about frameworks. … They say ‘are you going to actually help us?’ ” 

But the polling also sparked frustration among some Democrats, who blamed the media for a majority of Americans not knowing any details of the bill.

“I think you all could do a better job of selling it, to be very frank with you,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters during a recent press conference. 

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) added that “the mainstream media has done an exceptionally poor job in covering what actually is in the legislation.” 

“There have been endless stories about the politics of passing Build Back Better, the role of the president, the conflicts in the House and the Senate, the opposition of two senators, the size of the bill, etc. — but very limited coverage as to what the provisions of the bill are and the crises for working people that they address,” he said. 

Sanders appears poised to tee off again over the media’s coverage of the two-part spending package on Wednesday, when he will hold a panel on what’s in the spending bill with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and advocates. 

“The corporate media has done a pretty poor job covering the reconciliation legislation, which has left a lot of working people asking, ‘What’s in the damn bill?’ ” Sanders tweeted on Tuesday.

Sanders’s initial statement sparked a pile-on by reporters, including questions about how to detail a bill that is still being negotiated and most key pieces remain in flux. 

“Fair enough — we are not done negotiating, so the final bill is unclear,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) tweeted, weighing in on some of the pushback. 

“But fleshing out what’s being contemplated would help the public,” he added, “and I for one am going to try to talk more about what we are fighting for. It is never a bad idea to recalibrate towards policy substance.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Brian Schatz Chris Murphy Dick Durbin Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Ron Wyden
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video