Another day of busted deadlines, political malpractice and drained presidential authority on Capitol Hill ended with Joe Biden’s one-two-punch on infrastructure and social spending stalled yet again. Even after Biden said his presidency was on the line and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned lawmakers not to “embarrass” him as he left on a big foreign trip, progressives still refused to back a bipartisan infrastructure bill they are using as leverage to secure the best possible terms in a watered down but still huge social spending plan.
While the President whom Americans elected to fix their problems struggles to squeeze a massive agenda through minuscule governing majorities, the challenging situation out in the country — which contributed to a drop in his approval ratings over the summer — continues to deteriorate.
New official data released Thursday showed that the recovery has hit a major roadblock, with growth stuck at an annualized rate of only 2% in the third quarter. The pandemic surge fueled by the Delta variant, along with supply chain crunches, worker shortages, slow job growth and rising inflation hampered an economy that Biden had hoped would now be roaring in a post-Covid-19 boom.
Gasoline prices, one of the most visceral indicators of prosperity for Americans, hit an average of $3.40 a gallon, according to the American Automobile Association, and are much higher in some states. Not all of these problems are Biden’s fault and some are brought on by unique factors germane to the pandemic and its impact on the global economy. But there are few signs the President has quick answers for these chronic economic problems as he struggles to enact a more fundamental overhaul of the economy to help working people.
At a CNN town hall last week, for instance, Biden admitted that high gas prices wouldn’t start easing off until next year. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently told CNN the supply chain problems that could spoil Christmas shopping and are prodding prices higher will also linger into 2022.
This split screen moment threatens to give Republicans an opening — and an opportunity to shape a political message that can get them off the defensive over ex-President Donald’s Trump’s bellyaching about the 2020 election.
“You’d think the President and congressional Democrats would avoid sabotaging America’s economy further. But that’s exactly what this proposal does,” GOP Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas said Thursday, lashing out at a spending bill that he styles as a huge Democratic tax and spending spree.
Such attacks are why Biden consistently brands the $1 trillion infrastructure plan and the larger spending plan, pared back by moderate Senate Democrats to $1.75 trillion, as huge jobs programs that will touch almost every citizen. “We would put hard-working Americans on the job to bring our infrastructure up to speed, good union jobs at prevailing wages; jobs you can raise a family on, as my dad would say,” Biden said on Thursday.
“You could have a little breathing room; jobs that can’t be outsourced; jobs replacing lead water pipes so families can drink clean water, improving the health of our children and putting plumbers and pipefitters to work,” the President said after traveling to Capitol Hill with a plea for action that failed to budge the impasse.
Changing millions of lives
There is no doubt that if it passes, the social spending package, which makes housing, education, health care and home care more affordable, has the potential to change millions of lives. The climate proposals could unleash a new green economy as well as help save the planet.
And Biden will probably eventually get his Washington victory lap. His domestic policy chief Susan Rice told CNN’s Anderson Cooper Thursday the White House was “very confident” a framework accepted by House progressives would be the basis of the spending bill that would now be able to pass both chambers. The two holdout moderate Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are yet to publicly and unreservedly endorse the framework.
The question now, after another missed deadline, is when the situation will change. In the last few days, the spectacle of Democrats ditching multi-billion dollar programs and hurriedly trying to come up with new ways to fund the bill has left an impression of chaos that hardly enhances the reputation of one of the biggest social spending bills in generations.
The longer the impasse lingers, the greater the risk that moderate Senate Democrats will get cold feet. Or that progressives will sour on a framework for a deal that cuts out many of their favorite programs, including paid family leave and free community college.
Biden’s departure for the G20 summit in Italy and the UN climate conference in Scotland was set by Democratic leaders as the latest deadline to pass the infrastructure and spending bills. On Thursday, it also became the latest must-pass date to be missed, reflecting a growing habit for the White House to set deadlines that are not met and frazzle the President’s credibility.
As a result of the latest miss, Biden showed up in Rome looking like a President who cannot get his own house in order before he meets world leaders to reaffirm US leadership. Biden had particularly wanted climate programs in the spending bill sent to his desk before he left, to pressure other nations to make significant cuts to carbon emissions at the climate summit.
Progressives believe that the social spending bill, which offers universal pre-school, home health care for the sick and the elderly and $500 billion in spending to combat climate change, is a once-in-a-generation chance to overhaul the economy to alleviate the burden on working Americans.
So their intransigence — and their willingness to use their new power in the House — is understandable. But there is a growing risk that the tortuous process of passing the legislation will diminish the political impact that the President can expect once it passes. Some Democratic strategists want the party to bank the twin wins for Biden now, to avoid any other accidents with the legislation.
‘This is what I ran on’
The President himself argued Thursday to progressives that there is no such thing as a perfect bill. His own credibility is on the line because he promised Americans he could bring rival parties together and get deals done to help working people. While progressives are fixated on the spending plan, more moderate Democrats in the House are hugely frustrated that an infrastructure package they see as critical to their reelection results has been frozen for weeks.
Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, whose seat is the on GOP’s target list for next year, fumed at progressives after yet another failure to pass the bill.
“It is frustrating to a lot of us that we are now in a game of ‘who goes first’ when all sides seem to be in agreement on the substance. … The country has been begging for this, my constituents have been begging for this.”
Biden had earlier tried to impress on progressives the need to act fast.
“We spent hours, and hours, and hours over months and months working on this,” Biden told the Democratic lawmakers on Thursday. “No one got everything they wanted, including me, but that’s what compromise is. That’s consensus. And that’s what I ran on.” If the bills fail to ever pass, Biden’s already damaged reputation for competence would take a serious blow and Democrats would have little to run on in 2022. But there’s no guarantee that even if the twin pieces of legislation make it into law, they will deliver a huge political dividend for the President.
Vast bills that dish out spending on social programs often take years to bed in and become political assets — like former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, for example. The risk is that the public sees Congress spending trillions of dollars without noticing a corresponding improvement in their lives. For Democrats, that is a headache heading into a year in which history suggests their first-term President’s party will take a battering.
The failure to pass the infrastructure bill, especially, may have already inflicted a grievous blow on Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, who is locked in a neck-and-neck battle with his Republican foe in Virginia, despite Biden cruising to victory there last year by 10 points. McAuliffe’s main problem is apathy among base voters in the suburbs. Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin’s message of economic growth, lower taxes and spending on education is resonating in this critical battleground that will decide next week’s election. Thursday’s grim economic news gave him another weapon as he headed into a final weekend campaign swing.
But progressive Democrats, after refusing to let the infrastructure bill pass Thursday before they get locked-in legislative text on the framework for the spending bill signed off on by Manchin and Sinema, insist that the delay in voting Biden’s agenda into law is only making the final package more impressive.
“We will vote those two bills together and the President will be able to have the victory that he deserves for being a negotiator in chief, bringing all parts of the party together,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Thursday.
“But most importantly, we will deliver for the American people the transformative changes that he and all of us ran on that will transform people’s lives.”