The Memo: Biden faces crunch time amid Democratic divisions

President BidenJoe BidenRand Paul calls for Fauci's firing over 'lack of judgment' Dems look to keep tax on billionaires in spending bill Six big off-year elections you might be missing MORE is facing his toughest days yet as he tries to keep the disparate factions of his party together.

Distrust is festering between moderates and progressives as crunch time looms on two huge bills: a $1 trillion package dealing with traditional infrastructure and another, originally capped at $3.5 trillion, that vastly expands social spending and would be the most significant piece of domestic legislation since the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

It would be a political catastrophe for Biden and the Democratic Party if the bills failed.


The White House has been eager to position Biden as if he were hovering above the Democratic divisions — the ultimate “honest broker” capable of bringing both sides together.

“He is working to help unify the caucus,” White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen Psaki'Saturday Night Live' flashes back to the 'ghost of Biden past' Unanswered questions remain for Buttigieg, Biden on supply chain catastrophe Chris Wallace labels Psaki 'one of the best press secretaries ever' MORE told reporters at Monday’s media briefing. She added moments later that Biden’s overarching message was: “Let’s get together, let’s get to work and let’s get this done for the American people.”

But it is far from guaranteed that Biden can avoid coming down on one side or the other on the moderate-progressive divide as the temperature rises on Capitol Hill.

It’s easy to imagine a scenario where one faction within the Democratic Party is seen as the victor and the other loses face as negotiations reach a crescendo. If that happens, all bets are off regarding the ultimate fate of the bills.

Biden seems well-suited to the task. On one hand, he is a lifelong moderate who defeated progressive stars Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersRepublican spin on Biden is off the mark Sanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'It's not coming out' Briahna Joy Gray: Biden must keep progressive promises or risk losing midterms MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDems look to keep tax on billionaires in spending bill Six big off-year elections you might be missing Republican spin on Biden is off the mark MORE (D-Mass.) for his party’s presidential nomination last year. On the other, the left has been pleasantly surprised by the scale of his ambitions during his first year — the $3.5 trillion bill being the clearest example.

“No one would have expected Joe Biden to have this large, broad approach and to really expand the reach of the federal government in very strong and positive ways,” said longtime progressive strategist Jonathan Tasini. “I think that he was shaped by the moment — the pandemic — and also by the process of running and having to bring along progressives in the election.”


The tensions Biden now faces keep ratcheting up, however.

A House vote on the infrastructure bill has been set for Thursday. Progressives have threatened to vote it down unless there is also progress on the more expansive social spending legislation.

But the centrists are leery of the bigger bill, and its fate in the Senate is perilous, with Sens. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinAngus King: Losing climate provisions in reconciliation bill weakens Biden's hands in Glasgow Independent senator: 'Talking filibuster' or 'alternative' an option Rep. Khanna expresses frustration about Sinema MORE (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaDems look to keep tax on billionaires in spending bill Sunday shows - Democrats' spending plan in the spotlight Independent senator: 'Talking filibuster' or 'alternative' an option MORE (D-Ariz.) saying they will not support anything with a $3.5 trillion price tag.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDems look to keep tax on billionaires in spending bill Sunday shows - Democrats' spending plan in the spotlight Pelosi won't say if she'll run for reelection in 2022 MORE (D-Calif.), striving to shepherd the landmark legislation to safe passage in what could be her last term wielding the Speaker’s gavel, said over the weekend that it “seems self-evident” that the bigger bill would have to be reduced to some degree.

So far, however, there is no agreement on how that would be done.

Meanwhile, Biden is having to navigate crosscurrents of rancor within the party. 

Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalMatt Stroller: Amazon's Bezos likely lied under oath before Congress Which proposals will survive in the Democrats' spending plan? Proposals to reform supports for parents face chopping block MORE (D-Wash.), the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, hit the moderates on Sunday, telling The New York Times, “So far, there’s been no reason to trust that what they say is what they’re actually going to do.”

Earlier this month, Manchin and leading progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezRepublican spin on Biden is off the mark House progressives call on Biden to end all new fossil fuel permitting Schumer endorses democratic socialist India Walton in Buffalo mayor's race MORE (D-N.Y.) also crossed swords.

Manchin, aiming to rebut Ocasio-Cortez’s allegation that he holds “weekly” consultations with Exxon Mobil, told CNN, “I don’t know that young lady that well. I really don’t.” Ocasio-Cortez shot back that his use of “young lady” was “weird, patronizing behavior.”

Biden and his aides have been working the phones to up the pressure on lawmakers. Last week, he held in-person meetings at the White House with members from both wings of his party.

Jeff Weaver, who was Sanders’s campaign manager in 2016, said he was satisfied, as a progressive, with Biden’s actions to date on the proposed legislation.

“There will come a point, I’m sure, when we are close to the end, when it may behoove the president to intervene a little more strongly. But everybody has to judge their own political timing.”


Weaver also argued that the self-described moderates — whom he prefers to label “a conservative fringe” — were overplaying their hand.

“They think we’re still living in the 1990s,” when the Democratic Party leadership shifted toward centrist policies, he said. “The party has moved drastically away from them, not just in the Congress but among rank-and-file Democrats. They’re acting like this is the 1990s, and it’s not.”

But other veterans of that era argue that it is the left that might have to accept painful compromises in the next few days.

Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic strategist who worked on then-President Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign, argued that there had to be some deal unless the left was willing to “stand on principle and blow up the entire Democratic Party.”

If the legislation were to fall, he said, it would inflict such damage on Biden that — coupled with other problems like the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan — it would amount to “game, set, match” for the Republicans in next year’s midterm elections.

Biden has been underestimated many times. He has decades of experience on Capitol Hill to draw on. But the next few days will be an intense test of his political mettle.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.