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Progressives’ spending proposals are out of step with battleground voters

Greg Nash

The House of Representatives is set to vote next week on President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill. At stake is not just a stronger U.S. economy, but whether we still have a functioning democracy. 

In normal times, this bill wouldn’t be controversial. Almost no one disputes the need for a major infusion of public investment in modernizing America’s transportation, water and other common goods that undergird U.S. economic innovation and competitiveness. That’s why the bill breezed through an otherwise polarized Senate on a 60-30 vote in August. 

In the House, however, progressives are threatening to torpedo the bill unless they get a simultaneous vote on a “reconciliation” bill that would spend trillions more on social and climate programs. Critics have assailed this tactic as political hostage-taking, but it’s more like a murder-suicide pact, since progressives want a big infrastructure bill too.

But they’re apparently willing to sacrifice the infrastructure upgrade to gain political leverage over the growing ranks of moderate Democrats who, although they support many elements of the massive reconciliation bill, are balking at its $3.5 trillion price tag. 

“At the end of the day, if we don’t have the reconciliation bill done, the infrastructure bill will not pass,” warned Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Here, as with so many of their demands for “bold structural change,” progressives are out of step with public opinion. According to a survey of battleground House districts and states commissioned by the Progressive Policy Institute, voters overwhelmingly support Biden’s infrastructure bill, 73-28 percent. Even more (83-17 percent) approve of his successful effort, in the face of progressive criticism, to win Republican support for the bill.

These voters also support, though by a much narrower margin (54-46 percent), the president’s push for the big “human infrastructure” bill that Democrats hope to pass on a purely partisan basis under budget reconciliation rules to get around a Republican filibuster. 

Since these voters live in the pivotal districts and states that will likely determine whether Democrats hold onto their slender congressional majorities in next year’s midterm elections, their views ought to command more attention in Washington.

In general, the poll, conducted by Expedition Strategies, found that battleground voters are more responsive to economic than social arguments for the president’s “Build Back Better” initiatives. For example, they think increasing the number of good jobs (28 percent), spurring innovation and growth (24 percent) and rewarding work (20 percent) are more important than reducing inequality (16 percent), promoting fairness (10 percent) or increasing unionized jobs (2 percent).

And like pragmatic Democrats on Capitol Hill, battleground voters are worried about deficits and debt. By 88-12 percent they say the growing national debt is a “serious problem,” and they also express anxiety about inflation.

These findings cast doubt on progressive claims that voters will reward Biden and Democrats simply for “going big” on spending. When asked if Congress should make significant public investments while being careful about how much spending and debt increases, or make bold new investments now and worry about the debt later, voters by 63-20 percent choose caution.

And in a warning shot across Democratic bows, nearly three-in-four (73 percent) voters say they are concerned that “Democrats in Congress want to spend too much money without paying for it.”

Democrats also are seen as “too anti-business” among these voters, who give Republicans the edge on the economy, innovation and helping entrepreneurs and small business.

While flashing some yellow lights, the poll also contains much good news for Democrats. 

For one, battleground voters aren’t buying Republicans’ supply side elixir these days. They strongly prefer more public investment and government action to improve the economy and spread prosperity to the traditional GOP formula of cutting taxes and regulations.

The survey also confirms a powerful public appetite for more “tax fairness.” Battleground voters enthusiastically support President Biden’s proposals to ensure that corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share. 

Instead of fighting over the size and cost of the reconciliation package, Democrats should recognize how much common ground and popular support they have on a wide variety of significant public investments that can be paid for by making personal and corporate taxes fairer and cracking down on tax evaders. These include a more generous child tax credit, more career pathways for non-college youth, more support for early learning and child care, efforts to expand health care coverage, and to accelerate America’s clean energy transition to achieve Biden’s ambitious climate protection goals.

Instead of going for everything at once, however, Democrats need to set priorities and fashion a reconciliation package that they can pay for without breaking the party’s diverse coalition apart. Unlike their counterparts in safe blue places, Democrats running in highly competitive districts and states can’t ignore battleground voters’ worries about debt, inflation and private job creation. 

That was the message Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), who heads the 95-member New Democrat Coalition, delivered Wednesday in a White House meeting with President Biden and party leaders. She stressed the need to get the infrastructure bill over the finish line and craft a reconciliation bill to do “a few things well, for longer, and which can have an immediate impact and provide certainty and stability for families, workers and our communities. 

If Democrats can simply compromise with themselves, rather than fixating on arbitrary spending targets, they can help President Biden pass two landmark progressive bills this fall. More than anything else, that would show the American people that their democracy is working for them once again.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

Tags bipartisan infrastructure bill budget reconciliation bill Congressional Progressive Caucus Government spending Joe Biden Pramila Jayapal Suzan DelBene

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