As Washington becomes even more partisan, all factions take ‘hostages’

Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin
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It has come to this: Each side in the Democrats’ clash over President Biden’s economic agenda is holding a hostage.

Both sides favor the two Biden administration bills — the American Jobs Plan, or infrastructure bill, and the American Families Plan, or reconciliation bill. But liberal Democrats refuse to vote on the infrastructure bill until the reconciliation bill (which has not even been written yet) is passed. Moderate Democrats are threatening to vote against the reconciliation bill unless the infrastructure bill — which has already passed the Senate with a bipartisan majority — passes the House.

Division in the Democratic Party is not exactly new — but it’s having embarrassing consequences, and it’s all because the president’s party did not win a solid majority in Congress. In an unusual situation for a newly elected president, Biden had no coattails. Democrats lost seats in the House last year and fell short of a majority in the Senate.

New presidents are often elected in the wake of a national crisis. The crisis is what gives them coattails. Like the Great Depression in 1932, when FDR was elected, and Democrats gained 90 House seats. Or the economic and Iran hostage crises in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected, and Republicans gained 34 House seats. Or the financial crisis in 2008, when Barack Obama won, and Democrats picked up 23 House seats.

Was there a crisis in last year’s election? Of course there was — the pandemic. The pandemic was the issue that elected Joe Biden. But it didn’t produce big gains for his party. Mostly because President Trump, realizing that the pandemic was a threat to his re-election, made a deliberate decision to downplay what he insisted on calling “the China virus.”

“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump acknowledged to journalist Bob Woodward.

What President Trump did was turn a dire national crisis into a partisan issue, which drove up turnout for both parties. Trump got over 74 million votes in 2020, the largest number ever for a presidential candidate — except for Biden, who got more than 81 million.

As a result, political polarization under President Biden has become even greater than it was under President Trump. And it’s gotten worse: What we are now seeing is not just polarization between the parties, it’s also polarization inside the Democratic Party over how partisan Democrats should be.

The Biden administration’s infrastructure bill is a classic public works program. It funds projects that benefit everybody, but that people can’t provide for themselves — like upgraded highways and bridges, improved electric power grids, better water systems and faster broadband — bipartisan projects that members of Congress can bring back to their districts and claim credit for (“Look what I delivered”).

The reconciliation bill is a classic social welfare program. Social welfare is intensely ideological and partisan (in other words, divisive). It entails spending government money to help disadvantaged people obtain things that better-off Americans can provide for themselves, like food, housing, health care and child care.

The highly partisan nature of social welfare is the reason why the Biden administration has to pass it as a “reconciliation bill” – a bill that affects government spending and revenues and can be passed by a simple Senate majority. It cannot be filibustered. Democrats do have a simple Senate majority — barely.

The Biden administration’s reconciliation bill can be passed without a single Republican vote, but only if every Democrat in the Senate votes for it — including Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, who has argued that the $3.5 trillion in social welfare spending that progressives want would “basically change our whole society to an entitlement mentality.”

Progressive Democrats are rallying behind the reconciliation bill because it would help restore something Democrats have been losing: populist appeal. President Trump brought Republicans a populist following, principally on social issues like race, religion, sex and immigration. Under Trump, the “diploma divide” between college-educated and non-college Americans grew wider. The reconciliation bill would help Democrats reclaim the economic populism that used to define the party in the days of FDR and Harry Truman — the party of labor and the working class. The party that Joe Biden grew up with.

Liberals fear that if they pass President Biden’s infrastructure bill first, moderate Democrats will feel no pressure to support the reconciliation bill. Moderates fear that if they support the reconciliation bill, they will lose the support of swing voters in their districts. House Republican leaders are becoming critical of the presumably bipartisan infrastructure bill because of President Biden’s insistence that the reconciliation bill be passed along with it. A Republican House member who supports the infrastructure bill called the reconciliation bill “a poison pill for those of us who wanted a bipartisan solution.” Among House Republicans, he said, “The consensus is: better both fail.” So now Republicans are holding two hostages.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).

Tags American Families Plan american jobs plan Barack Obama Biden infrastructure plan Democratic control of House and Senate Democratic Party Donald Trump Filibuster Joe Biden Joe Manchin political polarization Reconciliation

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