The Memo

The Memo: Biden stuck in middle of tricky Democratic fight

President Biden is stuck in the middle of a heated Democratic fight in which he is likely to disappoint one faction or the other while seeking a compromise on the key pillars of his legislative agenda. 

Biden has so far tried to thread a needle between progressives who want expansive social spending and more conservative Democrats who are skeptical of that effort and prefer to focus on a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. 

But last week he was broadly seen as siding with progressives, who have long mistrusted the instinctively centrist Biden, after a House vote on the infrastructure bill was punted into the future. Biden also insisted that the infrastructure measure and the bigger social spending bill would have to be linked, a decision that deeply disappointed centrists who were pining for a vote and a quick victory. 

In a nod to the political center, Biden cautioned the left that the top-line number of the larger bill would have to come down appreciably from the $3.5 trillion first suggested. That's a political necessity with centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) saying he wants a much smaller $1.5 trillion package.  

Yet Biden also suggested $3.5 trillion was the political center and his preferred number, not what the left wanted. The terms of that outline "didn't come from, God love them, Bernie Sanders or AOC or anybody else," he said on Monday, referring to the senator from Vermont and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). "I wrote them." 

Ocasio-Cortez took up that point on Twitter, agreeing that even $3.5 trillion is "far, far below what we'd invest." If the figure were to be reduced by another two-thirds, the New York congresswoman added, "people will hardly feel we passed anything." 

The divergences between leftists and centrists point to an extremely difficult few weeks to come for Biden. He badly needs a win after seeing his approval ratings erode in the wake of a chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, shocking scenes of Haitian migrants massing by the thousands under a bridge in Texas and a COVID-19 resurgence.  

He can take some heart from the fact that the Haitian migrants were eventually dispersed and COVID-19 appears to be receding once again. But he is still in a difficult spot.

He needs to somehow chart a course between two factions that not only differ on policy but also distrust each other.  

Centrist Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) has compared the progressives to the Republican Party's hard-right House Freedom Caucus. Progressives including Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, have suggested that their conservative-leaning colleagues are imposing shifting and arbitrary demands. 

Biden, asked on Monday by one reporter why he had been unable to "close the deal" on both pieces of legislation last week, ruefully replied, "I was able to close the deal on 99 percent of my party." He then added he was missing "two people" - a reference to centrist Senate holdouts Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). 

"He has got an enormous challenge, because somehow he has to balance all that," said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University.  

Reeher also noted how high the stakes are, adding, "Except for the moderate Democrats, it seems to me like everyone is playing with fire. On the progressive side, if you really burn this thing down or really hurt this president, it is not clear to me that the alternative in 2024 is a more progressive Democrat." 

Democrats who want expansive social spending will likely have to swallow some bitter pills in the weeks ahead.  

If the top-line number of the bigger bill is to be reduced enough for Manchin and Sinema, it will almost certainly involve one of three choices: dropping some policies entirely to focus on others, shortening the lifespan of some new benefits or applying rigorous means-testing. 

The first option would be extremely tricky within the Democratic caucus, since the party would effectively be asked to choose between cherished goals like reducing child poverty or combating climate change. 

Manchin has spoken in favor of means testing. But progressives worry that it poses both a substantive problem and a political peril. First, it creates red tape, which people most in need are often less well-equipped to navigate. Second, the added bureaucracy slows the introduction of the programs, thus postponing the date by which voters can feel their upside. 

The idea of providing new benefits for a shorter time has one advantage: If the programs prove popular, presumably a future Congress would be inclined to extend them. But going for that option would potentially leave Biden and his party open to the charge of concealing the true expenditures they are planning. 

Meanwhile, there is the question of whether a deal can be hammered out that the centrists would accept, even if it meant they lost face. 

Some Democrats contend it can all get done in the end, in part because the consequences of failure would be so grave. 

"The definition of governing is negotiating, and each side may start off in one area but they have got to meet someplace," said Ohio-based Democratic strategist Jerry Austin. 

Still, Biden will need all his long Capitol Hill experience if he is to keep his party together and wrestle his signature legislation over the finish line. 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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