Biden has to erase red lines to see his agenda through

By Andrew Menezes
Posted July 6, 2021 at 7:00am

ANALYSIS — Red lines are the bane of compromise, and so Democratic leaders are trying to keep their fellow partisans from drawing them. Only a forceful response from President Joe Biden will bring the party together.

To this point, Biden hasn’t delivered it, as he seeks to navigate a complicated legislative process akin to a chess game. He has to not only assuage moderates who want a bipartisan deal with Republicans on roads, bridges and other “hard infrastructure,” but also convince them to back a more expensive, partisan bill to combat climate change and fund a broad array of social programs, including child and elder care and free community college that progressives see as critical.

Of course, it’s to be expected that lawmakers representing unique districts and states will have strong feelings about what is in, or out, of major legislation. But the fact that they are drawing their red lines so publicly isn’t helping their president.

Let’s review. Progressives, worried about a bipartisan Senate infrastructure deal that emerged last month, first said they couldn’t support it if it didn’t do enough to combat climate change. Told by their leaders and Biden that climate would be part of a second bill passed through the partisan budget reconciliation process, they said they didn’t trust them. The two bills had to move together or not at all, said Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.

They weren’t the only ones making demands or taking shots at Biden’s plans, which total $4 trillion in spending paid for with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Democrats from high-tax states like Tom Suozzi of New York said the package must also repeal the cap on state and local tax deductions, which a Republican Congress imposed in 2017.

House Agriculture Chairman David Scott of Georgia said he would not support Biden’s plan to increase taxes on heirs, saying it would hurt family farmers, joining other farm-state lawmakers who have raised objections.  

Lawmakers from competitive districts, including Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia and Stephanie Murphy of Florida, joined the chorus when they said that getting deficits under control should precede the kind of spending Biden wants.

And Republicans, of course, have red lines of their own, as House Minority Whip Steve Scalise spelled out at his press briefing on June 29: “We’re not going to support any bill that raises taxes,” he said. GOP leaders insist there will not be a single Republican vote to upend their 2017 tax law, making Biden and the Democrats’ task all the harder.

Biden backpedals

Biden thought he’d hit on at least an initial strategy to keep progressives in line when he signed on to a bipartisan Senate agreement on June 24 to boost spending on so-called hard infrastructure by $579 billion over five years, saying it would have to move in tandem with a larger reconciliation measure or not at all. 

“If this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it,” Biden said then of the infrastructure bill.

It was obvious the strategy was coordinated with party leaders. That same day, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said much the same at her weekly press briefing: “There ain’t going to be no bipartisan bill, unless we have a reconciliation bill.” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer earlier had pledged to see both bills through, assuring wary progressives “that in order to move forward on infrastructure, we must include bold action on climate.”

But two days later, Biden was backpedaling. The White House issued a statement from the president saying he had misspoken: “My comments also created the impression that I was issuing a veto threat on the very plan I had just agreed to, which was certainly not my intent.”

Biden said he was rethinking his position to reassure the Republicans who agreed to the deal in the hopes it would scuttle momentum for Biden’s larger spending plans. But the Democrats involved want their agreement to become law as quickly as possible too, regardless of what happens with the rest of Biden’s agenda. 

Sen. Maggie Hassan, the New Hampshire Democrat who’s expecting a tough reelection fight next year, touted the bipartisan deal at a meeting with constituents in Durham, N.H., on June 28. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III told MSNBC that one bill’s passage shouldn’t depend on another’s.

And the next day, New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the House Democratic Conference chair, was retreating from the position Pelosi had stated just days before, saying one bill wasn’t necessarily linked to the other. “I don’t know that I would use the word ‘contingent,’” he said.

Give and take

In seeing his agenda through, Biden faces a keen challenge with a Senate divided 50-50 and a House in which the Democratic majority can afford to lose no more than four votes at present. In order to succeed, it should be obvious that party factions will need to compromise. 

And perhaps, faced with the prospect of getting a lot done, progressives will accept a more modest reconciliation bill than they would like. 

In telling ABC News on June 27 that he could potentially support as much as $2 trillion in additional spending through reconciliation, Manchin, the most moderate member of his caucus, gave Biden some working room. Manchin’s red lines aren’t so strict as to preclude a sizable deal. 

The difficult negotiating will begin July 12 when senators and representatives return from a weeklong July Fourth recess. Schumer hopes to hold votes on both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and on a budget resolution that will begin the process of reaching a reconciliation deal. Pelosi will face pressure to pass the bipartisan deal, or to hold off until the Senate moves on reconciliation.

It’s easy to see how it all could blow up, if Biden fails to bring Democratic factions together. At the same time, Biden came to the White House with more experience in legislative deal-making than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson. He’ll ask Democrats to put aside red lines and compromise. His party in Congress will then have Biden’s presidential legacy, their prospects for retaining their congressional majorities and the demands of their constituents to consider.