Democrats need a win — now

In politics, success tends to beget success. That truism apparently eluded leftwing Democrats on Sept. 30 when they refused to vote for President Biden’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Instead of basking in accolades for having passed a second landmark achievement to go with Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, Democrats are treating the public to an extended exhibition of their inability to forge the internal consensus necessary to govern. 

Even as clogged U.S. ports and long delays in delivering goods of all kinds underscore the urgent need for upgrading the nation’s economic infrastructure, the Congressional Progressive Caucus vows to persist in blocking the bill if they don’t get their way on a follow-on reconciliation bill that would spend trillions more on new social entitlements and climate protection. 

That’s sewn anger and mistrust among moderate House Democrats, who were promised a vote and stood ready to pass the infrastructure bill last month. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) set a new deadline for a vote — Halloween, fittingly enough. To arrest the administration’s faltering momentum, Democrats need a big political win, and soon. 

Buffeted by vaccine hesitancy and the delta variant’s surge, as well as the chaotic U.S. exit from Afghanistan, the president’s approval ratings have tumbled by 10 points since June. That’s a worry for Democratic candidates, especially former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who’s locked in a tight race for a second term in a state Biden won by 10 points in 2020.

The impasse over infrastructure is odd in two respects. First, progressives claim they too want to spend big on nation-building at home. But it doesn’t seem to be their top priority. Their message couldn’t be clearer: Redistributing wealth takes precedence over strengthening the economy. Is that really the message Democrats want to run on in next year’s midterm elections?

Even more perplexing, the White House, and sometimes the president himself, seemed to encourage leftist obstruction as a way of pressuring two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), into supporting the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill.

The strong-arm tactics haven’t worked, and have left bruised feelings among not only the senators but also many moderate House Democrats who also don’t support the entire progressive wish list. Now the fate of both bills is uncertain as the White House belatedly struggles to broker a compromise that balances the needs of both leftwing and centrist Democrats. 

What we’ve witnessed is anything but a deft exercise in coalition management. Despite all the heady rhetoric about ushering in “transformative change,” it was never likely that Democrats would pass changes on a New Deal scale with razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate.

What’s more, Democrats representing battleground districts and states face electorates that are skeptical of the left’s big tax and spending ambitions. Since they make the difference between their party being in the majority or out of power, their values and interests also must be accommodated.

Nonetheless, it’s hard not to sympathize with President Biden’s desire to “go big” in helping Americans hit hard by the long COVID-19 pandemic and recession. That’s a tribute to his empathy, and fortunately for him and the country, it’s a goal he can still achieve.

The imperative now is to get both bills unstuck by persuading progressives to compromise on a reconciliation package with a price tag between $1.9 trillion and $2.3 trillion. Democrats need to fashion a more disciplined and focused reconciliation package that aims at doing a few things right rather than throwing money at a plethora of new entitlements.

A blueprint at the Progressive Policy Institute, where I serve as president, sets three core, progressive priorities: supporting working families and children, combating climate change and expanding access to affordable health care for those in need. It would cost roughly $2 trillion and could plausibly be paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy and strengthening federal tax compliance.  

A Build Back Better package totaling between $2 trillion and $3 trillion for both bills is within striking distance for Biden and his party. Only on the dreamscape of democratic socialism can spending of that magnitude be considered chump change. By historical standards, it’s big change.

The left’s latest gambit is to pass all the programs in their original $3.5 trillion grab bag but set them to expire after a few years so they appear less expensive in the Congressional Budget Office’s official 10-year score. This is bad policy that would make it easier for a future Republican Congress to simply let programs expire rather than trying to abolish them, as Republicans failed to do with ObamaCare.

“For President Biden’s legacy, it’s important to make these longer-term investments and not have short-term cliffs,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), leader of the mainstream New Democrat Coalition.

The “haircut” gimmick is also dubious politics, because it’s harder to communicate to voters a clear rationale for a jumble of smallish or temporary new programs than a few big initiatives with real power to change lives.

Democrats control the White House and, however tenuously, Congress. They don’t have the luxury of endless negotiations aimed at appeasing the left. To regain political momentum, Democrats need a win. The best way to get one is to pass the infrastructure bill as soon as possible and work on a pragmatic reconciliation bill that better reflects their philosophically diverse coalition.

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

Tags American Rescue Plan Act Biden infrastructure plan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi Presidency of Joe Biden Reconciliation Suzan DelBene

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