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'This is it': For Biden's domestic agenda, the moment of truth

·Senior White House Correspondent
·11-min read
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WASHINGTON — The headlines have been grim.

“Dems fear Biden’s domestic agenda could implode,” said Politico. “Joe Biden’s Domestic Agenda Is In Serious Danger,” warned Vanity Fair. CNN was blunt: “If Joe Biden fails this week, his entire domestic agenda is done for at least 15 months.”

The White House has dismissed such claims as doomsaying clickbait, but there is still a low-grade anxiety coursing through the West Wing.

U.S. President Joe Biden pauses during a meeting in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. (Sarahbeth Many/The New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
President Biden during a meeting in the East Room of the White House on Friday. (Sarahbeth Many/the New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

For much of September, President Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and $3.5 trillion social safety net and climate budget proposal have seemed more in peril than at any time since they were introduced as legislative twins in June.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Sunday that a vote on the infrastructure package would come on Thursday; meanwhile, Biden spent the weekend at Camp David, twisting arms and holding hands like the Senate power broker who Barack Obama selected as his vice president in 2008.

Before leaving the White House on Friday, Biden addressed the complex and not altogether auspicious situation in a speech nominally about COVID-19 vaccinations that veered into discussion of the political reality he faces.

“Now, we’re at this stalemate at the moment,” Biden told reporters. Both he and his advisers point to polls that show aspects of his agenda — road rebuilding, childcare tax credits, free community college — are broadly popular with the American public, as is the notion of paying for those proposals with taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. The White House understandably prefers looking at those polls as opposed to the ones showing Biden with an approval rating dropping like fall temperatures.

“I make no apologies for my proposals,” Biden said on Friday.

Assurances from Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer that they can keep their respective conferences in line do little to disguise the inherent unruliness of the situation. Progressives are impatient, while moderates are skittish. Trying to negotiate a peace between them is a president who spent three decades in the Senate making deals, though arguably none as complex or ambitious as this.

Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, speaks during a news conference in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday Sept. 24, 2021. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
White House press secretary Jen Psaki at a news conference at the White House on Friday. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“This is a messy sausage-making process,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this past Thursday, as Biden prepared to meet with members of Congress at the White House. That meeting was later deemed “productive,” but the fragile coalition that could hand Biden a massive victory could just as easily leave him with a massive failure.

In a memorandum to congressional Democrats sent last week, former White House chief of staff John Podesta outlined the stakes in blunt terms: “If Democrats care about our nation’s future and well-being, this is the legislative package we need,” he wrote, citing climate change and income inequality as concerns that could not wait.

“No excuses. This is it.”

The fall wasn’t supposed to be quite this nerve-jangling for the White House. Only months ago, Biden was openly inviting comparisons to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson on the strength of his domestic agenda — comparisons many pundits were all too happy to make. Then came the Delta wave of the coronavirus and the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, which cast a pall over much of July and August.

For the first time, a White House that had enjoyed several months of easy wins found itself in a funk. And that was before the trillion-dollar proposals that need congressional approval began to teeter on the brink of collapse.

“If any member of Congress is not concerned that this could fall apart, they need treatment,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., told Politico last week.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, center, speaks during a
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a "Build Back Better for Women" event on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on Friday. (Samuel Corum/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Nobody knows that better than Pelosi, who rescued the Affordable Care Act from the tea party a decade ago, when Biden was the vice president. “There’s a deal to be made here, and the best dealmaker in Washington is Nancy Pelosi,” says Joe Lockhart, who served as press secretary for Bill Clinton.

Pelosi’s problem — as the administration sees it — is a progressive faction led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. The progressives have threatened to vote down the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan unless the $3.5 trillion social spending proposal also gets a vote. She claims to have 60 lawmakers ready to vote against the infrastructure plan unless the bigger package is also allowed to advance.

In the upper chamber, however, the $3.5 trillion package faces a chilly reception. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a centrist, has made it clear that he considers the price tag too high. The Senate’s 50-50 partisan split means that Biden can’t afford to lose a single Democratic vote, progressive or moderate, in the face of united Republican opposition against the larger package.

Pelosi is working on progressives; Biden is working on Manchin and another moderate, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who has raised objections of her own and who could ultimately prove more damaging to Biden’s agenda than Manchin, who is a more familiar entity to Democratic leadership.

In the balance hangs a far-reaching domestic program that would tackle racial inequality and climate change, lead pipes and internet connections — a domestic agenda, in other words, vastly bigger than anything that could have been credibly conceived by Biden’s recent predecessors in the Oval Office.

“The White House, so far, has not had to curtain its ambition,” says Navin Nayak, a pollster for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign who is now an executive at the Center for American Progress. He praises the Biden administration’s passage of the American Rescue Plan, which injected $1.9 trillion into the economy earlier this year. “People do not give them enough credit for how far along they are,” Nayak says.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sign H.R. 1319 American Rescue Plan Act of 2021during a bill enrollment ceremony on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, March 10, 2021 in Washington, DC.  (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sign the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 at a ceremony on Capitol Hill on March 10. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Within a month of the coronavirus relief bill being signed into law, the White House began putting together — and aggressively promoting as visionary legislation — its infrastructure package, which it eventually divided into two components, one addressing roads and bridges, and the other focused on human needs like home health care, along with myriad other progressive priorities.

The bills were different, and so was the legislative strategy engineered by Biden’s close circle of advisers, led by chief of staff Ron Klain. What became the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan was intended to pass the way bills pass according to civics class, without relying on obscure legislative procedures. Best of all, the proposal had support from more than 10 Republicans in the Senate, overcoming the chamber’s inevitable filibuster.

The more ambitious $3.5 trillion social spending package has never enjoyed any Republican support, but that was not supposed to make a difference, because the Senate parliamentarian gave Biden a crucial victory by ruling that Democrats could enact the $3.5 trillion bundle using a filibuster-proof budgetary process called reconciliation, which meant they didn’t need Republican support in the Senate — as long as every Democrat stayed in line.

The moment of truth for both proposals is rapidly approaching, as the White House and its allies are well aware. “It’s not the fourth quarter yet,” Lockhart says.

Maybe not, but Biden doesn’t have much time. Pelosi had intended to hold a vote on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill on Monday; that vote has been moved to Thursday, which buys the White House time but not much else. Jayapal and her progressive cohort continue to insist that there should be an accompanying vote on the $3.5 trillion package too, while Manchin and Sinema have shown no indication that they’ve come to accept that price tag.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) walks to the Senate chambers at the U.S. Capitol on September 22, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

“This is politics. When people think they have leverage, they go for everything they can,” Lockhart explains.

If the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill fails in the House, Republicans — almost certainly joined by Manchin and Sinema — will retaliate by killing the $3.5 trillion social spending bill. The result for the White House would be a scenario known inside the Beltway as a cluster, followed by an unprintable four-letter word.

In his memorandum to congressional Democrats sent on Wednesday, Podesta asked lawmakers to “imagine the political fallout if Democrats do nothing. Americans will be left with one party that denies all these problems and another that does nothing about them.” The emphasis is his, the only one in the document.

The White House insists that dissensions were always expected and can still be addressed. Officials there, and outside allies of the president, believe he is uniquely equipped for this moment because he works well with Schumer and Pelosi, who in turn know when to allow lawmakers to vent and when it is time to tighten the screws.

And inside the West Wing, it has become a kind of mantra that the downbeat headlines are a kind of distraction — as one official put it, a holdover from the unrelenting chaos of the Trump era. Then again, Klain and others are perfectly happy to share the Washington Post columns of Jennifer Rubin, a onetime conservative who has been exceptionally amenable to the Biden administration. Like every other administration, this one is frustrated by the press, except for when the press is on its side.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-WV) presides during a nominations hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 21, 2021. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Joe Manchin presides during a nominations hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

“We’re in the bleak period right now where everything is in peril,” Jon Cowan of the centrist think tank Third Way told Yahoo News. “But that is typical of large legislative packages. While the road will be quite bumpy, infrastructure will be signed by Biden and a reconciliation bill that is smaller than $3.5 trillion but still significant will pass,” Cowan predicted.

Podesta agrees: “We will not secure the full $3.5 trillion investment,” he wrote in his memorandum. Biden appears to have come around to such a concession himself, having reportedly asked Manchin bluntly for the highest amount he would countenance. If the two have reached such a number, they haven’t told the rest of the world.

Problems unrelated to infrastructure have materialized in recent days too. A ruling by the Senate parliamentarian effectively scotched any possibility of immigration reform being tucked into the reconciliation package, even as images of Haitian refugees huddling under a Texas bridge offer a visceral reminder of how profoundly broken the nation’s immigration system has become.

Meanwhile, other White House priorities are falling by the wayside. Last Wednesday, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., announced that a bipartisan effort at police reform had failed, dealing yet another blow to Biden’s domestic agenda. Psaki said that Biden was looking at “potential executive actions” on police reform, but acting by presidential fiat is not nearly as attractive as signing a bipartisan bill.

Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. (Drew Angerer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Sen. Cory Booker at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Sept. 14. (Drew Angerer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Democrats are behind a new voting rights bill, which the president’s African American supporters see as a crucial bulwark against state-level Republican laws intended to restrict access to the ballot. Some of those supporters are asking why voting has been seemingly relegated to a second-tier concern.

“Biden’s getting way over his head,” says Christopher Sebastian Parker, a University of Washington political scientist who has studied the role of race and racism in American civic life. He warns that if Biden neglects the concerns of African Americans, he stands to lose their political support.

“We’re the reason, primarily, that he’s in office,” Parker said, alluding to the enthusiasm with which Black voters turned out for Biden during the Democratic primaries, when support for his candidacy appeared to be faltering.

Still, most everyone inside the White House and the greater Democratic establishment believes that something will pass. It has to, they think, if only because lawmakers recognize that they will probably never have another chance to play with this much money, on such a grand scale.

That scale, of course, is what made this moment so perilous in the first place.

“The idea that this would sail through is naive,” Lockhart says. “Anyone who thinks that just doesn’t understand congressional politics.”

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