WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could have been speaking for the majority of Democrats in Washington when she said on Tuesday that she was “very disappointed” that President Biden’s domestic agenda will have to be pared down because of opposition from Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
“If there are fewer dollars to spend, there are choices to be made,” Pelosi said during her weekly press conference at the U.S. Capitol. She promised that the final package would be “transformative” all the same, whatever that package ultimately looks like. The two Senate centrists have said that the president’s proposal to spend $3.5 trillion over 10 years on expanding childcare, health coverage and environmental protections is much too expensive to win their necessary support.
Manchin has indicated he’d like to see Build Back Better, as the president’s “human infrastructure” proposals are collectively known, end up costing around $2 trillion. Without any Republican support for those proposals, and with the Senate evenly divided between the two parties, the demands of Manchin and Sinema carry inordinate weight.
Now that the red pens have come out, every member of Congress with any say in the matter wants to make sure that their priorities make the final cut and aren’t trimmed too severely in the process.
“Housing. Is. Everything,” said a recent tweet from Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., the influential House Financial Services Committee chairwoman. She wants to see affordable housing remain a priority in the pared-down Build Back Better agenda.
Other progressives are making similar demands. “The Congresswoman has repeatedly said ‘no climate, no deal,’” a spokeswoman for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., wrote to Yahoo News in an email.
Some Democrats just want to see something — anything — make it into law. They fear that failure to pass either the Build Back Better bill or a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that has some Republican support could indicate to the American people that Democrats are incapable of governing when in control of both the White House and both chambers of Congress. It is not lost on Democrats that they used precisely that argument to wrest the House from Republican control in the 2018 congressional midterms.
“The stakes are too high,” veteran Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told Yahoo News, “and the voters will not forgive Congress for doing nothing.”
Frustration has been mounting at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue as Biden, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer try to keep a fragile coalition from collapsing.
“Everybody is frustrated,” Biden said earlier this month. Little since then has transpired to lighten the mood.
As far as the White House is concerned, things could be a lot worse. Just weeks ago, a clash between House progressives and Senate moderates nearly led to the collapse of Biden’s entire domestic agenda, with Pelosi deciding that she didn’t have the votes to bring the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package to the floor.
Pelosi’s calculated delay has bought the White House and congressional leaders time, but it also gives competing factions on Capitol Hill an opportunity to make an intense pitch for why their priorities need to stay in the final bill.
Pelosi has said that she would like to keep most of the programs in the Build Back Better agenda, only for shorter durations. Those include an expanded child tax credit, provisions for lower drug prices, subsidized childcare and a raft of investments in lowering greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. “Mostly we would be cutting back on years,” she said on Tuesday.
That was different from what she told her Democratic colleagues on Monday, indicating in a letter that it was preferable to cut programs instead of reducing the period through which those programs would be funded. “Overwhelmingly,” that letter said, “the guidance I am receiving from Members is to do fewer things well so that we can still have a transformative impact on families in the workplace and responsibly address the climate crisis.”
If all that seems confusing, that’s because it is. Biden made listening to members of Congress a signature of his negotiating style. He has dispatched his top aides routinely to Capitol Hill to explain the particulars of his domestic agenda. Listening to lawmakers has the understandable effect of emboldening them, which may not be what the White House needs at the moment.
“Every day there’s a reason it can all fall apart,” Rep. Jake Auchincloss, D-Mass., told Yahoo News the day after Biden went to Capitol Hill in an effort to rally House Democrats. “There’s definitely bruised feelings,” the first-term congressman acknowledged before observing that “Americans don’t care about our feelings in Washington, D.C.”
Americans do seem to like the various parts of Biden’s domestic agenda; it has routinely polled at about 70 percent, as he and his allies never tire of pointing out. All the more frustrating for the White House, then, that parts of that agenda have to fall out.
Officials in the West Wing tried to put a brave face on the ongoing negotiations, even as they confront the reality of curtailed ambitions.
“I promise you, we don’t get too glum around here,” press secretary Jen Psaki said during a Tuesday briefing, “even if things look challenging.” She pointed out that even ambitions that have been curtailed are better than ones that haven’t been realized at all.
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