With the benefit — and the challenge — of very narrow Democratic majorities in Congress, a first-year president attempts to pass his major economic plan to reanimate the American middle-class. The president cannot expect a single vote from the minority Republican Party. Moreover, a subset of Democrats on both left and right are suggesting they may defect from the president’s agenda. Yet, as votes on the legislation loom, a handful of members of Congress on left and center indicate they may not back the bill after all, putting the president’s economic and social programs at risk, and with it his new presidency.
Sounds familiar? To those who have been following Washington closely since the early 1990s, it should. Because it’s precisely what happened in 1993 when new President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight A pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics Is Wall Street serving its own interests by supporting China's? MORE faced a recalcitrant Congress as he pursued his economic plan.
Of course, this time around the House of Representatives must also pass a major infrastructure package that has been linked to budget reconciliation passage. And moderate Democrats like Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinWhite House: Window for finalizing sweeping budget package 'closing' Progressives see budget deal getting close after Biden meeting Democrats at odds with Manchin over child tax credit provision MORE (D-W.Va.) will no doubt deeply cut the $3.5 trillion price tag of Biden’s economic plan in exchange for their votes. But, at its core, the situation today is remarkably similar to 1993.
In that year, the House eventually passed the Clinton plan — by only two votes — as enough courageous moderate and liberal House Democrats compromised on behalf of the new president. This put the agenda in the hands of two Democratic senators: David Boren of Oklahoma and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. For several days, each equivocated. Then Boren changed his vote from yea to nay, meaning Kerrey had to vote yes or the plan was doomed. Clinton met privately at the White House with Kerrey, a Vietnam war Medal of Honor recipient who was one of Clinton’s leading rivals in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary campaign. Yet, Kerrey still wavered.
Finally, in a dramatic late-night speech on the Senate floor, Kerrey expressed deep concerns that the package “had not asked enough of the American people.” But then he declared, "President Clinton, if you are watching now, as I suspect you are, I could not and would not cast a vote that would bring down your presidency." The bill passed 51 to 50, with Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreMcAuliffe on 2000 election: 'I wish the United States Supreme Court had let them finish counting the votes' All Democrats must compromise to pass economic plans, just like 1993 Amy Coney Barrett sullies the Supreme Court MORE casting the tie-breaking and deciding vote.
Like Biden, Clinton was focused on growing the middle class, although some of his agenda was also necessarily focused on curbing debt, an issue that dominated the 1992 Presidential campaign. Clinton’s plan marginally increased taxes on the wealthy and businesses. Despite the need to raise money, Clinton also expanded the earned income tax credit to reduce the amount of tax lower-income taxpayers would pay, as part of his “rewarding work” emphasis.
Yet, the economic results of Clinton’s economic bill during his presidency were indisputable and remarkable, and have not been repeated since. Americans at every income level saw their hourly wages and household income rise. Nearly 23 million new jobs were created during his time in office, with unemployment falling to a 30-year low. In retrospect, it is not surprising that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan endorsed the plan, the only Republican to do so.
Today, Biden’s plan contains more social spending and a greater focus on the climate crisis — yet like Clinton’s plan, it raises rates on the richest Americans and large businesses. Most importantly, as Biden has said, his plan will economically benefit a wide swath of the average working class and middle-class Americans, producing millions of jobs and higher incomes, just as Clinton’s bill did.
In the following midterm election of 1994, Democrats did lose their majorities. But this was viewed at the time, and by historians since, as primarily in response to White House mishandling of its health care effort, and due to the beginning of Republican culture war politics, not the budget bill. As for Kerrey, he was reelected in 1994 by Nebraska voters in landslide — an outcome that may be of interest to more than a few current congressional Democrats.
For Democrats now, inaction is clearly the biggest political danger. Failure to produce both the infrastructure and reconciliation bills will almost certainly mean they will not only lose their majorities, but fail to keep their promises to the American people and badly wound Biden’s presidency.
Whether wavering members of Congress will have the conviction to make the same choice Bob Kerrey did is still unclear. This pertains to House liberals who are threatening both the infrastructure and Reconciliation bills just as much as moderate senators opposing the current budget reconciliation package. But history shows that most individual congressional Democrats are reluctant, as Kerrey phrased it, to “bring down” the new president’s economic agenda. Instead, they typically recognize the will of the American voters in electing the president, and the need to do help the majority of the people. Let’s hope Democrats today have the good sense to repeat that part of their history, at least.
Paul Bledsoe is strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute and a professorial lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy. He served as a staff member in the House of Representatives and Senate Finance Committee, as well as at the Interior Department and on the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton. Follow him on Twitter: @paulbledsoe