WASHINGTON — When President Joe Biden won the Oval Office last year, he promised to rule by consensus and unite the country.
Since then, the country has watched him fail to bring the disparate wings of his party together around ambitious tax and spending plans that would force the wealthy to take on more of the burden on social programmes. It was after giving up any hope of a bipartisan agreement that would demonstrate Washington’s ability to meet.
The shift from consensus to partisanship means that when Biden and his aides now mention compromise, they’re not referring to a bipartisan partnership. They only talk about their party factions.
“We spent hours and hours and hours over months and months working on this,” Biden said of the “framework” for $1.75 trillion for the “Build Back Better” deal Thursday. “Nobody got everything they wanted, including me, but that’s compromise. That’s consensus. That’s what I ran for.”
That was evident Thursday, when Biden visited the Capitol for the second time in a month to appeal to House Democrats to pass a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and better rebuild the budget. The latter will raise money from the wealthy to inject money into long-standing liberal priorities, including green energy incentives, universal early education, public housing, and child and aged care subsidies.
But Biden can’t move the bills to his desk.
To succeed, he needs the warring factions of his party — mainly House Progressives and two centrists in the Senate — to set aside their remaining distrust and disagreements to enact what most Democrats still see as true historic investments in climate and social policy.
The infighting doesn’t help Democrats politically—it undermines Biden’s narrative and feeds party critics—and threatens to leave a bittersweet taste even if the bills become law.
Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, had hoped that the grand announcement of the outlines and the president’s personal lobbying on Capitol Hill would persuade liberals to vote for the infrastructure bill from Bipartisan, any progressive in the House of Representatives held them hostage in order to try to gain influence on the social spending scale.
It shouldn’t be difficult for a Democratic president, a Democratic speaker of the House, and the leader of a Democratic majority in the Senate to pass expanding the Social Safety Net by taxing the rich. The plan to build back better is the dogma of the bread and butter party, and lawmakers seem to agree to spend about $3 trillion over the next decade on infrastructure, climate, and social programs.
Biden has not helped by slowing down in negotiation — Democratic allies have begged him to engage more forcefully for months — or by refusing to set his priorities when it became clear that creating a framework would require a major screening process.
“The longer it takes, the messier it looks,” Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary under President Barack Obama, told NBC’s NBC reporter.
But there is no doubt that Biden’s factional diplomacy has moved the discussion forward significantly in the past two weeks.
Progressives always had to give up a lot to get some of their priorities, and the tire was about a quarter of the size they sought at at one point. He was stripped of many provisions that they considered high priorities. On the Senate side, the moderates came to the negotiating table and negotiated in enough detail to allow the framework to begin to take shape as actual legislation.
The Build Better plan is now half the size of Biden’s original $3.5 trillion proposal, the result of slow and tortuous negotiations with centrist Senator Joe Manchin, D. It does not include paid family leave, lower prescription drug prices or Medicare coverage for vision and dental services.
The liberals are angry about it. They wanted more. On Thursday, they refused – for the second time in a month – to vote on the infrastructure bill. Their reasoning is that they don’t trust House and Senate moderates to support a social spending bill if the infrastructure measure actually becomes law. It’s progressing in the legislative process, having already passed the Senate, and it just needs a positive House vote to go to Biden’s desk.
“The best way to secure the gains and promises made today is to take a little more time to see the actual bill and make sure Manchin and Cinema say ‘yes,'” Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said of the framework agreement Biden announced.
In other words, progressives plan to hold out until the ink dries up on Biden’s negotiation plan with Mansion and Cinema. While they have not committed to voting for anything, members of Congress’s progressive bloc said in a statement Thursday that they “overwhelmly” support the framework.
However, a faction of them told Pelosi on Thursday that they will not vote for infrastructure until there is a tough deal with the Senate to pass the social spending bill, according to a rebellious lawmaker. Estimates of the rebel group range from twenty to more than thirty. This forced Pelosi to abandon her hopes of voting on infrastructure this week.
It should have come as no surprise to anyone, particularly Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress, that centrists will dictate the terms of any deal. Each of them has an effective veto on the Build Better plan because the Senate is split 50-50 and Republicans have neither been nor invited to participate in the negotiations. All of them will vote against it.
The vast majority of Democrats in the House and Senate would gladly vote on both bills, in any order, and it would be a major victory for the American public and its party. But Biden, Pelosi and Schumer do not have the guts to deal with centrists or progressives.
Manchin doesn’t need party leaders to help him win re-election in a state that gave Biden less than 30 percent of her vote in 2020. Cinema’s political calculations in Arizona vary, with Biden winning nearly 10,000 votes, but she’s not going to have any trouble raising money — Key electoral assistance to national party leaders – which is not on the ballot until 2024.
Likewise, House Progressives do not count on Pelosi to win reelection. For many of them, their position gives them a greater national platform. Whoever bows down risks being seen as an apostate by progressive activists. They come primarily from politically secure areas where the only fear is the primary challenge on their left side.
There are other factors at play, but they all point to the same conclusion: The only tool Biden, Schumer and Pelosi have is to appeal to the party’s collective interests.
It may eventually provide enough leverage to pass both bills through Congress, but the frequent use of the tool exposes the limits of his power and exposes the party’s lack of a unifying goal.
Now, the president who campaigned to unite the entire country will be lucky if he can prove that he can unite half of it.
To do so, he needs fellow Democrats to put aside their political differences, petty grievances, and personal ambitions long enough to achieve their common agenda.