Dismal polls have Dems split over how hard to push Biden agenda
Democrats are divided over how hard to push President Biden’s agenda in the months remaining until Election Day, uncertain about how much risk to take on at a time when Biden’s approval rating is stuck just above 40 percent.
Democratic lawmakers are growing increasingly pessimistic about scoring a big legislative victory and are split over whether it makes sense to force so-called messaging votes on the Senate floor to draw contrasts with Republicans on key issues, such as expanded access to child care, programs to fight climate change and prescription drug reform.
Some say those votes have value, while others wonder if they need to worry more about saving their imperiled Senate majority. Right now, political handicappers expect Republicans to flip the House.
This raises questions about whether Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) will bring any version of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda up for a vote before November.
Schumer says he isn’t giving up on the reconciliation, bill but the package doesn’t seem any closer to getting done now than it appeared in January.
“Here’s the tension: You have folks who think democracy works best if senators have to take a position [by voting on proposals] and then you have folks who are deeply aware that we have five colleagues in very challenging races and we should listen to them about whether they want to take show votes that make their world much harder,” said a Democratic senator who requested anonymity to talk about tension among colleagues over how hard to push for Biden’s boldest ideas.
The lawmaker noted there is little appetite among vulnerable incumbents such as Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) to take tough votes on bills that are likely to fail because of Republican opposition or divided Democratic support.
There’s also little consensus among Democrats about what to include in a budget reconciliation package, which could pass the Senate with a simple-majority vote under special rules.
“There are about a thousand ideas about what pieces can we move. Can we do drugs by itself? Can we do drugs with climate? Can we do drugs, climate and child care? And it all depends on the same person,” said the Democratic senator, referring to centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who blew up the Build Back Better package in December.
“It’s like we go around in circles,” the source said.
Kelly, who faces a tough race in a state that Biden won narrowly, said he doesn’t spend much time making political calculations but indicated he’s not a fan of spending time voting on messaging bills that don’t have a chance of becoming law.
“I don’t like to do stuff that’s a of waste time,” he said, noting that he spent most of his career outside of politics as a businessman, astronaut and naval aviator. “There are lots of needs our country and the world has right now.
“If I was the person that controlled what happens here, it [would be] doing stuff where we actually can be successful,” he said.
Manchin told reporters after meeting with Schumer Tuesday that any budget reconciliation bill needs to be focused on “getting inflation under control.”
In March, he suggested a bill to reform the tax code combined with proposals to fight climate change and lower the price of prescription drugs, with a large chunk of the money raised from tax and prescription drug reform going to reduce the federal deficit.
But on Monday, Manchin met with a group of centrist Democratic colleagues and Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer (N.D.) to talk about a bipartisan energy package that could include some of the same climate-related proposals that have been discussed in the budget reconciliation discussion, such as a proposal to reduce methane emissions.
Kelly said there was “a lot of overlap” between what the bipartisan group discussed and the climate-related provisions that have been discussed as part of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.
“When we can do stuff in a bipartisan way, I think generally that is a better way,” he said.
This has raised new questions among Democratic lawmakers about whether Manchin is all that committed to hashing out a deal on a budget reconciliation package.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is leading the call for Schumer to bring bold legislative proposals to the floor to either pass them or show voters that Republicans are against popular reforms.
Warren and other progressives still want to pack elements of Build Back Better into a budget reconciliation bill that could pass with 50 Democratic votes. She and other progressives also want Schumer to bring pieces of Biden’s agenda to the floor under regular order and force Republicans to block them.
She wrote in a New York Times op-ed this month that if Republicans want “to block policies that Americans broadly support, we should … force them to take those votes in plain view.”
Warren also scoffed at the idea that Democrats have enough accomplishments under their belt to take into the midterm elections, breaking with Democratic colleagues who say that running on the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill are big enough wins to keep control of Congress in November.
She argued in her Times op-ed that “Democrats cannot bow to the wisdom of out-of-touch consultants who recommend we simply tout our accomplishments” and instead “need to deliver more of the president’s agenda.”
But other Democrats say that while holding show votes to draw contrasts with Republicans might be appropriate in some cases, they want to put more focus on bills that can get to Biden’s desk. That likely means reining in the ambitions of the party’s left flank and working with Republicans.
“There is some benefit to show that we are trying to pass legislation to help folks and let people know where the differences are. Obviously, elections are all about choices and people need to see that there are clear choices and differences between the party,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Gary Peters (D-Mich.).
But Peters said “you have to temper that with the fact that we want to pass legislation that has a meaningful impact on people’s lives.”
Asked about vulnerable Democratic colleagues who are reluctant to vote on politically dangerous bills that don’t have a good chance of becoming law, he said: “That’s why I say the focus has to be on getting things done.”
Peters has also defended recent statements by vulnerable Senate Democrats criticizing the Biden administration’s decision to lift the Title 42 health order that has stopped migrants from entering the country on asylum claims.
He argues that Democrats already have enough big accomplishments to run on in the fall.
“Between the recovery plan, the help for families to get through the pandemic, help for small businesses, the tax cut for families with children, the infrastructure package, there’s a lot to run on now,” he said.
Other Democrats agree with Peters that the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court, and the bills Biden has already signed into law give Democratic candidates much to tout on the campaign trail.
Sen. Brian Schatz (R-Hawaii) argues the six-week work period that wrapped up before the April recess was “extraordinarily productive.”
“We passed an omnibus, we passed the Violence Against Women Act, we passed Ukraine aid … an oil ban, confirmed a Supreme Court justice,” he said.
Updated at 7:36 a.m.
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