WASHINGTON – Fractious congressional Democrats coalesced significantly around President Joe Biden's multitrillion-dollar domestic ambitions last week. But the two measures boosting resources for social, environment and infrastructure programs remained works in progress, and lawmakers also managed to embarrass Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
That dissonance reflects how things routinely work in Congress, where legislating and politics are ungainly and often produce convoluted messages.
A look at Democrats' bumpy path ahead following another tumultuous week of trying to pull their agenda through a Congress divided so tightly that they'll need almost unanimous support to smash through united Republican opposition:
LIKELY VICTORY IN SIGHT
Though its final shape is still being negotiated, Biden bowed to Democrats' handful of stubborn moderates demanding that he cut his 10-year, $3.5 trillion package of social and environment programs in half.
After months of bargaining, the party’s increasingly powerful progressives have largely decided to back an outline of that now diminished plan, though they're still fighting to preserve some programs. While initially demanding $6 trillion and then falling back to $3.5 trillion, they’re declaring victory at a still hefty $1.75 trillion, perhaps a bit more.
A final deal would let Biden and his party try selling voters on the measure’s large sums for universal preschool, extended subsidies and tax breaks for health care, and tax credits to encourage cleaner energy. It’s paid for largely with new levies on millionaires and big corporations. All score well in polls.
Two Democratic aides said Sunday that progress was being made toward adding language aimed at lowering pharmaceutical costs by letting Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices. The compromise would cover fewer drugs than many Democrats want, but would still be a victory for the party. The aides described the talks on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss them by name.
A BONUS, BUT AN UNCERTAIN TIMETABLE
Once an accord is completed, progressives say they’ll also let the House vote on an accompanying $1 trillion package of roadway, water and other infrastructure projects, another Biden goal. That bipartisan bill was already approved by the Senate, but House progressives have held it hostage to pressure moderates to back the larger social and environment measure.
Optimists say votes could occur as soon as this week. Skeptics say talks could last far longer. To date, that process has yielded near-daily nastiness between progressives and moderates that does little to enhance the party's prospects of retaining congressional control in next year's elections.
One near-term event that might affect Democrats' talks is Tuesday's Virginia gubernatorial election.
Should Republican Glenn Youngkin defeat Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the blue-leaning state, it could worry Democrats about their hold on swing-area suburbs enough to quickly settle their differences faster. Or it might make some of them less willing to back the larger package.
MODERATES SAY PROGRESSIVES DOING DAMAGE
Biden held a private pep rally with House Democrats Thursday at the Capitol, pleading, “I need you to help me" on both bills. At the same meeting, Pelosi, D-Calif., said she wanted the House to approve the infrastructure measure, saying, “We must succeed today.” Their remarks were described by a person familiar with the meeting who insisted on anonymity.
But the week ended with Democratic negotiations still underway. The infrastructure vote never occurred as progressives insisted on first seeing a complete, final text of the social and environment measure.
In a town that watches carefully how leaders expend their political capital, moderates said the day dealt a blow to Biden, Pelosi and the party. Biden's approval in polls has sagged recently, and rank-and-file intransigence would only hurt further, they said.
“We are the party that wants to get something done," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif. He said Biden “put his credibility out there today and asked his House Democratic caucus to support him, and there were a number of members that weren’t willing to to do that."
“This day will go down in history as a day, like no other day, that Democrats dragged themselves through the mud,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. He warned, “Republicans are going to grab any scenario that they can to try to convince the nation, including independents, that Democrats just don’t have the juice for the job.”
PROGRESSIVES FIRE BACK ...
Biden had little choice in halving his economic plan’s size. Without support from centrist Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, it had no chance in the 50-50 Senate. That's given them a special place in progressives' hearts.
“We need a couple senators to understand that Joe Biden’s the president, and I think we’ll be in a better place," said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., a progressive leader.
Liberals and party leaders say all will end well.
“The president’s poll numbers are going to go up the minute we deliver” legislation bolstering education, climate and other programs, said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “These are the things that people want to see us fighting for, and we are going to deliver."
Late Thursday, progressives said they were aiming toward ultimately supporting both bills. Pelosi thanked the “overwhelming number” of Democrats ready to do so. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said passage was “clearer than ever.”
... BUT THE RESULTS ARE MIXED, AND INCOMPLETE
The social and environment measure inarguably includes wins for progressives, but its smaller price tag means some priorities are being sliced.
Free community college, paid family leave and fines against utilities using carbon-heavy fuels are gone or subject to last-ditch efforts to revive them.
More than a dozen House Democratic women issued a statement calling paid leave's omission “unconscionable" and chastising critics who consider it “some kind of paid vacation, instead of the fight for one’s life that it often is."
Also dangling is Democrats' hopes of helping millions of immigrants remain in the U.S. “If there’s no immigration reform, I cannot support these bills,” threatened Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill.