Opinion | Campaign

Democrats' do-or-die moment

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Democratic legislators on Capitol Hill face a do-or-die moment. The fate of President Biden's agenda (and perhaps his presidency) as well as the economic wellbeing of millions of Americans is at stake. So are Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

Democrats must come together to pass the bipartisan infrastructure and reconciliation bills. If they don't, it will be much harder to argue in 2022 and 2024 that voters should trust Democrats to govern in the interest of middle- and working-class families.

If there is any president who can succeed in this situation, it is Biden. In fact, he ran on bringing people together, on bridging the gap and finding common ground. But he cannot do it alone. This is also a major test for Democrats in the House and Senate.

The sides seem farther apart than ever, with scant hope of unifying. On the budget, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) said $3.5 trillion was too high a number for him to support and even said he would like a "strategic pause" on the spending plan until 2022. This is wholly unrealistic. Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and House progressives say they cannot go below $3.5 trillion.

So, what now? Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the leaders of the progressives and moderates must come together and hash this out until a deal can be reached. The only way to get this done is by continuing to talk, deal, negotiate and compromise.

There are several things to remember that offer hope that a deal can be reached. While the Democratic infighting seems dire, there's actually more agreement than meets the eye.

All Democrats agree on the big things that both bills want to accomplish - access to quality health care for all Americans; access to quality child care for parents; the ability to care for the elderly; access to higher education without taking on crushing debt; and repairing and rebuilding America's physical infrastructure, something Republicans also support and helped to pass in the Senate. Even Sanders thinks Democrats will "come together" in the end. 

Importantly, even as Biden's poll numbers diminish, much of his policy agenda remains popular with the American people. But additional proposals in the bill and other cataclysmic events surrounding this debate make a resolution harder. 

One of the proposals Democrats wanted included was legalization and a pathway to citizenship for "Dreamers," Temporary Protected Status holders and other undocumented immigrants who have lived in the country for years. The Senate parliamentarian denied Democrats the ability to include this provision, ruling that it would have much more than a budgetary impact and would constitute a massive policy change.

On top of all this, Congress must raise the debt ceiling so that the country doesn't go into default.

So, what should Democrats do in the face of all these challenges? First, they should offer an alternative proposal on immigration. They should include legalization of "Dreamers" and holders of Temporary Protected Status to ensure that these vulnerable groups of immigrants can stay safely in the U.S. Legalizing this limited group will not be a sweeping change of policy and will have a positive budgetary impact by adding billions to our economy. 

Democrat should also stick with pairing the debt ceiling issue with the bills to keep the government open. Republicans have threatened to vote "no" on raising the debt ceiling. Democrats should call their bluff. This should not be a Democrat-only responsibility. Democrats joined Republicans to do the same under President Trump, understanding that this was a sacred duty of every legislator and not a partisan power-wielding exercise. Do Republicans really want to be blamed if the U.S. defaults on its debt for the first time in history?

The Republican Party is a shambles. Most Republican voters believe President Trump's  "big lie" that the 2020 election was stolen. They will weaponize it in the midterm elections, hoping that advancing the lie will help them at the ballot box. That puts our democracy in grave danger. This fact alone should convince most Americans to choose Democrats over Republicans.

But that won't be enough for Democrats to keep their majorities. Democrats must come through on their promises to govern and do big, hard but necessary things for the American people.

Maria Cardona is a longtime Democratic strategist, a principal at Dewey Square Group, a Washington-based political consulting agency, and a CNN/CNN Español political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @MariaTCardona.

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