Politics

Will Democrats Finally Stop Embarrassing Themselves?

After months of humiliating party infighting, Democrats are trying to reboot their agenda and salvage Joe Biden’s presidency.

Chuck Schumer speaks at a podium in a dim room with several Senate Democrats behind him
See that lighting? It’s the shadow of failure. Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Wednesday evening, the last night of the first year of Joe Biden’s presidency, the Democrats finally accepted what has been obvious for months: With their bare majority in the Senate, they could not get 50 votes to change the chamber’s rules and pass a package of voting rights bills. It’s unusual for a Senate majority leader, such as Chuck Schumer, to call a vote that divides his own party—and formalizes two members of his majority as pariahs—against a united opposition. But if that’s what it took to end this cycle of Democrats repeatedly running their heads into a wall on the issue, then so be it.

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Democrats haven’t done much of anything other than head-butt brick walls these past several months. The party spent half a year trying to square the circle on the Build Back Better Act, their catchall social spending and climate legislation, before Sen. Joe Manchin unceremoniously pulled the plug on it in December. Afterward, Democrats turned to the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. These had even less chance of passing, since the Democrats would have needed to carve out an exception to the Senate filibuster in order to enact them with a simple majority. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema could not have said more clearly or more often that they would never change the 60-vote threshold, no matter how many Jim Crow references their colleagues lobbed around. Trying to corner and isolate them may have been Democratic leaders’ best strategy for changing their minds, but it didn’t work.

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These exercises in unproductivity have come at a cost. Pick your favorite polling average, and Biden’s net approval is at an all-time low. While Democrats have fumbled around kicking the tires on an agenda with ambition that exceeds their narrow majorities, Biden’s marks for handling the economy and COVID—the top two issues among voters—have only gotten poorer.

As Biden and the unified Democratic Congress begin their second year, the question is whether they can move on from this cycle of embarrassment.

It’s at least conceivable. Biden is reportedly tiring of the legislative morass and his tenure as a “senator-president.” But after spending roughly a bajillion hours shooting the breeze with Manchin in the Oval Office while failing to reach a deal on Build Back Better, White House officials are once more restarting talks with the West Virginia senator, this time on a stripped down version of the bill that might actually meet his demands. At a press conference on Wednesday, the president conceded he might have to “break up” BBB and pass “big chunks” of it, then fight for the rest later.

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There is, keep in mind, no such thing as “breaking it up”: Anything that’s going to pass either will be stuffed into the filibuster-proof reconciliation bill or go nowhere. But it is an acknowledgment that what’s going to pass has to fit within the Manchin-sized hole. During his presser, Biden suggested a deal might include spending on climate and universal pre-K, but drop the expansion of the child tax credit, which had been a major priority for Democrats.

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Democrats in Congress finally seem to accept they are at Manchin’s mercy too. NBC News reports that there is even talk within the party of converting the whole package into a deficit reducer, to give Manchin a (thin) argument that it fights inflation. (As my colleague Jordan Weissmann wrote last week, such a deal could theoretically still leave room for major spending on climate, child care, and an expansion of Obamacare.) Manchin, who told reporters the negotiations are “starting from scratch,” also seems to be teasing something along those lines. “The main thing we need to do is take care of the inflation,” he said Thursday. “Get your financial house in order. Get a tax code that works and take care of the pharmaceuticals that are gouging the people with high prices. We can fix that. We can do a lot of good things.”

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Beyond a slimmed Build Back Better Act, there are a few other opportunities for Democrats to notch legislative wins.

There’s bipartisan buy-in to reform the Electoral Count Act, a dated and thin law the statutory gaps in which contributed to a very unpleasant Jan. 6, 2021, in the United States Capitol.

A bipartisan R&D bill that passed the Senate last year to beef up technological competitiveness with China and boost American semiconductor manufacturing has gone nowhere in the House, which has a host of separate ideas on the matter. There was an agreement for the two chambers to work out their differences in a conference committee late last year. Things have gone awfully quiet, but if Democrats wanted to buttress Biden’s accomplishments, it’s something they in theory could try to figure out.

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Lastly, there’s another huge, must-pass piece of legislation due in February, barring another short-term delay: an omnibus spending bill to fund the government through the end of September. This is a vehicle on which Democrats can append other, smaller elements of their agenda—or potentially additional COVID relief—that they can’t get elsewhere. Funding bills are subject to the filibuster and thus require a deal with Republicans, but often this works out when Democrats trade more defense spending for more domestic funding.

This is not the legislative agenda of any Democrat-not-named-Manchin-or-Sinema’s dreams. But at this point in the calendar, quick, dirty wins are far more preferable than prolonged, valiant losses. Their outsize expectations made anything less than societal transformation seem paltry, but the first-ever major climate legislation, universal pre-K, and a major science and tech bill, to go along with the largest infrastructure investment in a generation, wouldn’t be too shabby. Meanwhile, Democrats can exact sweet revenge on Sinema in a couple of years through a primary, and they can yell about Manchin as long as they want. The last few months have been an abysmal period for Democrats in which they’ve produced nothing but intraparty fighting heading into an election year. For now, they have to try and get votes where they’re available, then move it along.

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