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Democrats promise to do it all despite dissension in the ranks

If President Joe Biden can’t forge Democratic unity, neither can his congressional leaders

ANALYSIS — The slim Democratic majorities that stuck together during the first winter and spring of Joe Biden’s presidency are moving apart as summer arrives, clouding how much of Biden’s agenda is achievable. 

As lawmakers pondered a new infrastructure offer from a bipartisan group of senators on the summer solstice’s eve, Democratic leaders have adopted a plan that their party’s progressive wing doesn’t trust.

The leaders are pitching a “two track” approach, one bipartisan and the other partisan, that they promise will yield the legislative successes Biden has promised.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said this strategy would balance the desires of all of the Democrats’ factions. It would allow centrists to secure a bipartisan victory preceding a partisan bill that will please progressives, who see this moment of full Democratic control of Washington as one they cannot squander in their quest to “build back better.”

“We have a broad caucus with a wide range of opinion, but there was total agreement that we must have unity and get it done,” Schumer said on June 15.

Schumer explained that some in the caucus believe “whenever you can do something bipartisan, you ought to try,” while others have looked at the bipartisan group’s proposal, with its focus on “hard infrastructure” like roads and bridges and its paucity of far-reaching climate or welfare provisions, and found it lacking: “It’s a good start, but it doesn’t do enough,” Schumer said.

He is saying that the Democrats in the bipartisan group, led by Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, are on board with the full package but want to pass part of it with GOP support. Their bipartisan outreach, in other words, does not threaten Biden’s $4 trillion plan to not only build new roads and bridges, but to expand child and elder care, combat climate change and make community college free.

‘Legitimacy and authenticity’

House Democratic Conference Chair Hakeem Jeffries echoed Schumer’s point and said Democratic messaging came straight from Biden.

“We’re going to lean into the bipartisan discussions that are underway, with legitimacy and authenticity,” he said. The second track, a budget reconciliation bill that allows a simple majority to pass legislation, would provide the path “to invest in the caring economy” if Republicans rejected those provisions, Jeffries added. 

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But if Schumer can pass the more ambitious provisions in his 50-50 Senate, and Jeffries in a House with just a nine-vote Democratic majority, their pursuit of the bipartisan bill befuddles. The bipartisan plan, with $580 billion in new spending, falls far short of the ambition that Biden has set out.

Logic states there’s a missing piece here, that Democratic centrists don’t actually want to go as far as their progressive colleagues do.

A letter from five in the House — Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia, Ed Case of Hawaii, Stephanie Murphy of Florida, Dean Phillips of Minnesota and Kurt Schrader of Oregon — to Speaker Nancy Pelosi on June 14 suggests that Democrats’ plans for transformational new government spending face Democratic hurdles too.

The five, who can stop any bill if they vote with a united Republican caucus, called for a budget plan that “stabilizes the debt as a share of the economy over the next ten years, prior to passing any significant spending or tax legislation” and said that the plan should involve “bipartisanship and compromise.”

Mixed messages

Staying on message is rule No. 1 for a majority party seeking legislative success. But neither Democrats’ centrist faction nor its progressive one is on message.

The progressives are no longer on message because they see their centrist colleagues are wavering. In news conferences, tweets and hallway interviews, they rejected the two-track approach and demanded assurances that their leaders would put to a vote and pass Biden’s original plan or something close to it.

Progressives don’t trust their party leaders and now have their own message: They want to drop bipartisan talks and move forward immediately with reconciliation.

“It’s time for us to go our own way,” Democratic Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts said at a June 15 news conference. “This is as clear as day.”

The progressives said they are willing to vote for a bipartisan bill only if their leaders guarantee passage of a reconciliation bill that meets their specifications.

Much here depends on the sincerity of the progressives and the steadfastness of the moderates. But the most important factor is Biden, who sent adviser Steve Ricchetti to meet with congressional Democrats on June 15 to reinforce the leadership’s two-track plan and signal that Biden’s patience with bipartisan talks is not unlimited. Ricchetti said he hoped to have a better picture in a week to 10 days.

Unfavorable signs

The signs for Democrats are foreboding. Just five months into his presidency, Biden is reacting to events and isn’t in command of his party like he was in March, when nearly every Democrat backed his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law. If Biden cannot forge Democratic unity, his congressional leaders cannot either.

Meanwhile, Republican senators, who heard a sales pitch from their bipartisan negotiators on June 15, are growing more amenable to their plan. They increased the pressure on Democrats a day later when 10 Republican senators said they supported the effort spearheaded by Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman alongside Sinema and Manchin. That’s enough to overcome a filibuster if all 50 Democrats joined them.

They’re gambling that Democratic leaders are wrong about their centrist members and that an infrastructure deal will short-circuit, or at least diminish, Democrats’ plans for reconciliation.

They have to worry, though, that the Democratic leaders are right and that GOP support on infrastructure will make it easier for Democrats to move on Biden’s broader ambitions by lowering the price tag for a second bill.

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