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Maybe Biden is a moderate after all

Is the president using progressives as foils to bring Republicans to the table?

On policy matters, President Joe Biden isn’t facing the same level of stonewalling from Republicans in Congress that Barack Obama did, Zeller writes.
On policy matters, President Joe Biden isn’t facing the same level of stonewalling from Republicans in Congress that Barack Obama did, Zeller writes. (Biden photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images; Capitol Dome photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call; composition by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — When President Joe Biden followed the enactment of his $1.9 trillion stimulus law in March with proposals to spend another $4 trillion on a panoply of progressive goals, the idea that he would transform the economy like Franklin Delano Roosevelt took hold fast. But the Biden-is-FDR case is eroding.

The biggest piece of evidence for that was Biden’s announcement on May 21 that he would reduce the amount he wants in a first tranche of funding to build new infrastructure and bolster electric cars and green energy by more than a quarter, from $2.3 trillion to $1.7 trillion.

Republicans, who to that point had offered only $568 billion, quickly dismissed the offer. But it has set further efforts at compromise in motion. GOP senators, led by West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito, on May 27 increased their offer to $928 billion, while a bipartisan group including Capito’s West Virginia colleague and the Democrats’ crucial 50th vote in the Senate, Joe Manchin III, is at work on a plan that would also undercut Biden’s.

Recall that it was Manchin’s efforts that helped secure a $900 billion COVID-19 relief law at the end of 2020.

It’s hard to see now how whatever infrastructure plan emerges — and the bartering bodes well for one — will come anywhere close to what Biden initially proposed, or to what the progressives in his party want.

Might it turn out that Biden is a moderate after all, a savvy one, who used progressives as foils, and their demands to spend trillions, blow up the filibuster, add seats to the Supreme Court and grant statehood to the District of Columbia, to bring Republicans to the table?

Negotiations continue

Republicans are at the table, and that’s a striking change. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell famously stonewalled President Barack Obama, and Obama proceeded on partisan lines to enact stimulus, health care and financial regulatory legislation with almost no GOP support. 

Progressives presume McConnell’s got the same plan for Biden and have urged Biden to drop the negotiations and use the budget reconciliation process to pass his full program, as he did March’s stimulus, with only Democratic votes.

The fact that Biden has not done so reflects both the reluctance of moderate Democrats in the House and Senate to rubber-stamp his proposal but also the reality that McConnell is showing more flexibility to Biden than he did Obama.

In that sense, the path of March’s stimulus to enactment is the anomaly. Take that law alone, which every Republican opposed, and it looks like McConnell’s Obama strategy all over again.

Examine the broader picture, though, and it looks different. Republican senators on May 28 filibustered for the first time this Congress, blocking consideration of a bill to create a commission to study the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol because they fear it would hurt them in the 2022 midterm elections. 

But on policy matters, many of them voted for a water infrastructure bill and a measure aimed at combating hate crimes against Asian Americans, and to advance a research and development proposal that is a big priority of Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer

Schumer on May 26 praised the “strongly bipartisan work” on his research bill and said it revealed “we still believe, Democrats and Republicans alike, united and moving forward, that another American century lies on the horizon.” After gaining cloture on the bill on May 27, Schumer plans to pass it after the Senate returns from its weeklong Memorial Day recess.

Republicans have also lent bipartisan support to every Biden nominee who’s come up for Senate confirmation, and in many cases substantial support.

Their willingness to continue negotiating on infrastructure indicates they see more upside in sharing a victory with the Democrats than in gambling that Biden won’t succeed in cutting a reconciliation deal that provides Democrats another victory they can claim as their own. 

Republicans figure that even if their warnings of inflation and economic cataclysm don’t transpire, they can fight the next election on cultural issues, using progressives as their own boogeymen on issues such as immigration, crime, critical race theory and transgender rights.

The GOP backtracking on the Jan. 6 commission and the continuing, caustic debate over Democrats’ elections bill, known as HR 1 in the House and S 1 in the Senate, have also distracted from this broader picture.

Dealing with Democrats

Biden’s also negotiating because moderate Democrats in Congress have told their leaders that they cannot accept the president’s proposals as written. Manchin has opposed Biden’s plan to raise the corporate tax rate to 28 percent, saying he’d go only to 25 percent. Last month, 13 House Democrats announced their opposition to Biden’s plan to tax the increase in value of inherited assets like farms. Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester told The Wall Street Journal on May 25 that the proposal to eliminate the “stepped-up basis” that heirs now enjoy was a “nonstarter” for him too.

With the Senate split 50-50 and Democrats in the House majority by eight seats, all of them have the power to either block or shape the infrastructure bill.

Economic indicators give Biden further cause to work with Republicans. A high inflation reading for April, combined with a disappointing jobs report, have bolstered the case for an infrastructure plan that repurposes unspent COVID-19 relief funds while minimizing tax increases. Republicans are making that case, and they’ve highlighted the concerns of former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who served under both Obama and President Bill Clinton. 

But even onetime advocates of going big, such as Jason Furman, the chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, are worried. He told CQ Roll Call last November that he believed the government should “spend whatever it takes” to defeat the virus and that he was more concerned about underspending than overspending, but more recently, he told Bloomberg he thinks the March stimulus was too big.

If Biden and the GOP seal a deal, it will help blunt the GOP’s attacks on Biden’s handling of the economy.

Of course, Biden and Democratic congressional leaders will want to avoid any bipartisan deal that loses progressive votes and risks undermining the enthusiasm of the party’s base. That could happen if the resulting deal isn’t as “big and bold” as Schumer has repeatedly promised.

Still, there’s no sign yet that progressives won’t put pride aside and vote “aye,” or that party leaders lack confidence in their fealty.

Indeed, top Democrats have treated them as paper tigers, as when Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed through a $1.9 billion Capitol security bill on May 20 that would increase police funding. Three progressives voted no, but it was clear their protest was symbolic because three others, vociferous critics of policing, voted present to assure a 213-212 Pelosi win: Jamaal Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

The three of them, along with seven other progressives, wrote to party leaders that same day to protest the removal of a provision in Democrats’ separate policing overhaul bill that would remove police officers’ immunity from civil lawsuits. Five days later, ABC News aired an interview with the chief Democratic negotiator on that bill, Karen Bass of California, in which she said, “Bipartisanship is everything if we want to get the bill on President Biden’s desk” and said she was “hopeful” a compromise would come together soon. 

Getting one, given Republican opposition to removing qualified immunity, will mean Democratic leaders will have to buck their progressive wing again.

Given all that, it no longer will surprise if Biden opts for compromise with Republicans over progressive dreams on infrastructure.

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