Politics

Will Democrats Doom Their Own President?

Joe Biden sits at a desk with hands near his chin.
President Joe Biden convenes a virtual COVID summit from the White House on Wednesday. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

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Jim Newell, Slate’s senior politics writer, is focused on this coming Monday, Sept. 27. Because that is the day when many of President Joe Biden’s legislative priorities will dramatically collide in Congress. There are two big bills the Democrats are trying to pass right now. One is a $550 billion infrastructure package negotiated with Republicans in the Senate. The other is a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill, which doesn’t require Republican cooperation at all. Progressives want to pass the big bill first to make sure it becomes law. Moderates want to pass the compromise bill first, because spending $3.5 trillion sounds like a pipe dream. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said voting will begin on Monday, but progressives and moderates are basically threatening to tank each other’s priorities if they don’t get their own way. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Newell about the mess the Democrats are facing, how it reveals a subtle shift in the center of gravity within the party, and whether Biden is in danger of having to kiss his agenda goodbye. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Have you ever seen the progressives this angry or empowered since you’ve been covering Congress?

Jim Newell: I’ve never before seen them and thought, oh, they might actually go through with a threat this time, because they’re not the equivalent of the Freedom Caucus and the Republicans who really don’t care if they screw up everyone else’s plans. Usually, progressives try to use their leverage, but they also understand that you have to keep this moving as a team to prevent embarrassing everyone. But this time, they really are willing to tank some plans because this is their last shot to get through a progressive agenda for potentially a pretty long time, and I think they want to make sure they have some leverage to make sure climate change is addressed, along with everything else they’ve been running on for years.

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I feel like when you have two bills like these moving at once, it doesn’t encourage folks to actually resolve any of the differences they have in terms of legislative priorities. You just have everyone going their own way, and then it comes together like a car crash at the end.

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If you focus all of your energies on the infrastructure bill first, as the Senate did, that’s just going to be done and sitting around waiting forever for the reconciliation bill. So then it leads to a situation where you have the moderates doing everything they can to try and get that bill signed into law so that they then have leverage in the reconciliation bill. And you have progressives trying to slow that process down to make sure the reconciliation bill has time to catch up so they can force the moderates to negotiate with them. It’s led to a lot of threats between each faction trying to get a leg up on the other and, you know. The way to resolve these differences, rather than threatening to vote to kill the other person’s bill if yours isn’t done first, is that have to sit in a room and make a deal.

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As soon as this bipartisan infrastructure bill passed, it was really celebrated in the Senate. Senators were just so happy and patting themselves on the back.

They were extremely psyched.

And then you get this letter from 10 House moderates to Pelosi basically saying, You’re going to have to deal with us. Can you describe exactly what went down in the summer and what you thought?

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So the infrastructure deal was kind of a prerequisite to get the Senate on board with kicking off reconciliation. The way that’s done is, you have to pass a budget resolution that that sets up reconciliation. So they pass that out of the Senate, but then these 10 moderates led by Josh Gottheimer, who represents suburban New Jersey, they send a letter to Pelosi saying, We will not vote for the budget resolution setting up reconciliation until we’ve already passed the Senate infrastructure bill.

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Pelosi can only lose three votes and still pass this stuff. That’s why she compromised and said she’d schedule a vote on the moderates’ infrastructure plan for Monday. The problem with that? It was nowhere near enough time for the progressives to get their reconciliation bill written. Democrats haven’t even agreed how much this bill should cost.

The $3.5 trillion handshake deal that was reached in the Senate Budget Committee was mostly negotiated between Bernie Sanders and Mark Warner. That was just a deal to the budget resolution out of that committee. It’s not that there was a unified Democratic agreement to spend $3.5 trillion.

So you’re saying the first step is to be like, OK, let’s talk about a bill, and then the second step is to be like, OK, here’s the number we’re all comfortable with. And then you can start talking about everything that’s in there.

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Pretty much. Here, no one quite knows what the agreed-upon number is that everyone is willing to spend, but it’s not $3.5 trillion.

The real negotiations will take place when the real bill is written actually approved in the Rules Committee.

It seems to me this is a point where a president or a vice president comes in and starts saying, “Hey, this is my agenda. We need to get it done. So how are we going to do that?” Is that happening?

Yes. I don’t know exactly what persuasion techniques they’re using. But as we speak right now, this is a revolving door of every Democratic lawmaker from all these critical groups who all have concerns—they are going in and out of the White House for all these meetings. It doesn’t look to me like there’s like a plan here. But it does seem like you really need the administration to come in and remind everyone that both Biden’s presidency and the Democratic Congress are at risk of being a failure here. So they need to figure something out.

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We probably haven’t seen the worst of how it’s going to get yet. When you’re trying to do something really hard with really narrow majorities, you usually expect a certain amount of turbulence. But I think this is really the first week where people have started to entertain the possibility that this might not get done. Still, I think figure something out. Yet I do think each camp could work a little bit to build some trust with each other. That’s the thing that’s been missing.

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