Democrats scramble for path forward after election setbacks
Democratic lawmakers are scrambling for a path forward after Tuesday’s disappointing election results in Virginia, New Jersey and New York.
The enthusiasm of Republican voters and a decisive shift among independents toward the GOP are troubling developments for Democrats who now see their congressional majorities in real danger.
Republicans say their victories in Virginia and elsewhere are sending a clear message to Democrats that they have “overreached” on their plan to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on social programs and to raise taxes on the wealthy.
But Democrats, by and large, are rejecting that analysis and claiming they lost because they didn’t move swiftly enough to move President Biden’s agenda through Congress.
After months of inaction on Biden’s social spending and infrastructure plans, they’re looking to break the impasse and pass both the budget reconciliation package and the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill through the House on Friday.
If successful, the reconciliation measure would head to the Senate for more negotiation and revision, while the infrastructure bill would go to Biden’s desk to be signed into law.
The House Rules Committee met late into Thursday evening to set up the flurry of action before lawmakers leave for the Veterans Day recess.
Also late Thursday, three moderate Democrats from New York and New Jersey announced a deal on deductions for state and local taxes, an issue that had stymied progress on the reconciliation package.
Democratic lawmakers said the Republican campaign victories on Tuesday made clear that they can’t let their intraparty arguments continue to fester and they need to get things done, even if moderates and progressives aren’t entirely happy with having to compromise on key issues.
“Had we acted in early October I think we could have had a much better result in Virginia and maybe elsewhere, too. And I think the lesson from that is the public gave us a majority at a very critical time in our country and they want us to use it,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
“I’m thinking about getting the job done and I think our delay in producing results … our delay on these two bills, I think that was painful,” he said. “I hope the lesson my colleagues and I learn and put into practice is we have a majority and let’s act on it.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) appeared to agree with that analysis when asked Thursday to react to Republican victories in Virginia, New Jersey and his home state.
“We got to get some real things done. That’s what people want. Reduce their costs, make their lives better,” he said as he was leaving the Capitol after a week of intense negotiations over the reconciliation proposal.
The morning after Republicans won big in Virginia and almost pulled off a stunning upset in the New Jersey gubernatorial race, Schumer sought to put the focus on how close Democrats are to reaching a deal on the budget reconciliation package.
“Last night, I held another round of talks going past midnight with a number of my colleagues as we approach a final agreement,” Schumer announced, promising, “the long hours we are putting into it will be well worth it.”
He also highlighted a deal with centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on a narrowed-down proposal to empower Medicare to negotiate lower costs for some prescription drugs and hammered Republicans for opposing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and for “stonewalling” Biden’s uncontroversial nominees.
But there was no mention of what some Democrats called the “bloodbath” in Virginia.
Centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on Wednesday said the Republican victories should sound an alarm among Democrats prompting them to proceed more cautiously with $1.75 billion social spending package.
“I think it should be a call to all of us have to be more attentive to the people back home,” he told reporters. “I think we need to take our time and do it right.”
But other Democrats are taking away a very different lesson. They say Virginia and New Jersey underscore the need to pick up the pace.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a leading progressive, said Democrats need to start putting points on the board by passing bills and doing so quickly.
“Democrats need to deliver and we need to deliver on the things that touch people’s lives. People are tired of waiting,” she said. “If Democrats deliver on the things that touch people’s lives, the voters will remember that.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told colleagues Thursday that there would be no deviation from the plan to pass as large a reconciliation package as possible.
“We are proceeding with transformative legislation to drive historic progress For The People, For The Children and For The Planet!” she declared in a letter circulated to House Democrats.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the fact that talks that have dragged on throughout August, September and October is fueling voter frustration.
“It is no great secret that the American people are frustrated. The provisions in the reconciliation bill are enormously popular and that is why the Republicans are opposed to it,” he said. “That this has gone on and on and on for week after week and month after month, that does not sit well with me nor with the American people and that’s a source of frustration, growing frustration.”
Democrats acknowledge that Biden’s polling numbers have softened significantly over the last few months and say a big reason is that he hasn’t had any big legislative accomplishments recently to point to.
Biden’s job approval rating stood at 54 percent in mid-March, when he signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan into law.
It has steadily diminished during the months-long drought during which Democratic leaders have been unable to get the $1 trillion bipartisan reconciliation package or the Build Back Better Act to his desk.
Gallup measured Biden’s job approval rating last month at 42 percent — the lowest mark of his presidency — with 52 percent of Americans disapproving.
But Democrats believe if they can pass major spending plans that will begin pumping money into the economy immediately, it will help lower the unemployment rate and boost public sentiment before the 2022 midterm elections.
Democratic lawmakers are also counting on the number of COVID-19 infections declining, which they predict will also help Biden’s job approval rating.
One Democratic senator said the political environment will be better next year, once Democrats have a chance to sell what was accomplished through the American Rescue Plan, the bipartisan infrastructure plan and the Build Back Better Act, which in total are projected to pump at least $4.65 trillion into the economy over the next decade.
The lawmaker said Democrats have been too consumed by negotiations over the reconciliation package to put together a strong messaging strategy for the election year.
“Nobody really talked about us doing the Recovery Act because we moved onto the next thing. We didn’t talk about how in three months we got up and running the largest tax cut for working families and it cut the poverty rate by 40 percent. Nobody has talked about us, including us,” said the senator, who requested anonymity to comment on the lack of a strong messaging strategy for the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.
Democratic senators say the stalled negotiations over the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act has diverted public attention to the infighting within their party instead of their proposals to expand child tax credit, and provide billions of dollars for expanded childcare, prekindergarten and long-term home health care.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) expressed frustration that so much media attention has focused on the daily battles between progressives and Manchin, a key centrist, and not on the substance of the reconciliation package.
“We need to go forward, that’s my view,” she said, conceding she was disappointed in Tuesday’s election results.
She said there’s been too much focus on Democratic infighting.
“There should be as much focus on the focus that Republicans are doing absolutely nothing,” she said.