After months of deference to Congress, President Joe Biden moved more assertively last week to shepherd half his domestic agenda into law. With the other half still in limbo, Democrats want some of that Biden punch again.
Outside groups fear that congressional Democrats could come up short on Biden’s social spending package. They are concerned that moderates in the House may end up buckling if the budget scores on the bill come back worse than anticipated. And there is residual anxiety that one of the two wavering Senate Democrats — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — could vote “no” over concerns about inflation and long-term debt.
The clearest solution to avoiding this, they argue, is more Biden.
“All eyes are on the president, all expectations are on the president,” said Lorella Praeli, co-president of the progressive Community Change Action. “We are playing our role. We are mobilizing. We're reminding people everyday what this is about.”
Praeli added that Biden must ensure there aren’t future cuts to the package, which dropped from $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion to accommodate centrist Democrats in the House and Senate. “This is what he campaigned on. Only the president can deliver it in the end.”
Until last week, Biden’s involvement in negotiations had been more deferential than managerial. That befuddled lawmakers, who were waiting for him to draw red lines about which priorities he wants in and out of the deal or to even demand votes. To date, Biden has publicly refrained from drawing a red line around including paid leave in the final version of the legislation, leaving the leadership in the House at odds with centrists in the Senate.
But Biden did ramp up his involvement in the negotiations last week. And Democrats viewed that as key to getting an agreement in the House on their infrastructure bill, as well as on a rule to move forward with their social spending package, which funds universal pre-K, expands Medicare access, cuts taxes for families with children 18 years old and under, and combats climate change.
Now they want more. Expectations are high for Biden to keep the House to its promise of a vote on that social spending plan the week of Nov. 15.
“They basically made a promise,” said Rahna Epting, executive director of the progressive advocacy group MoveOn. “And Biden was able to get enough progressives to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, on that promise. We are expecting Biden and the Democratic Caucus will make good on their word and pass the Build Back Better Act no later than Nov 15th as stated.”
White House officials contend that Biden and his team remain in close touch with the Hill, and their legislative affairs staff continues to push the social spending bill toward a vote. The White House said it is communicating regularly with a range of lawmakers including Manchin, but did not answer when asked whether Biden has spoken to the West Virginia senator or other moderates in recent days.
“There has been no kind of slowdown when it comes to our Hill outreach,” a White House official said.
The growing demands for Biden to stay heavily involved reflect a fear in the party that the window to act on the agenda is quickly closing, especially as concerns mount about lingering inflation and the midterms near. If the House meets its deadline next week and passes the social spending bill, some Democrats want Biden to issue a deadline for the Senate to act. Others noted that the end-of-year legislative calendar is short and brutal.
The “dynamic has totally changed,” said a Democratic strategist. “The president secured this agreement with the five holdouts for House passage of BBB next week and it’s on him to enforce it.”
A top climate operative echoed that assessment telling POLITICO that Biden “will have failed” on tackling climate change if the second piece of the agenda doesn’t pass.
But the operative also expressed a newfound fear that Biden’s current effort to sell the benefits of the infrastructure bill could distract or complicate Democrats’ attempt to keep public interested in the social spending plan.
"They need to sell [physical infrastructure] but also act like it's not enough," said the activist.
"How are they also creating the urgency for BBB to get done, for it to stay on the timeline of getting it done by Thanksgiving? It's a balancing act.”
Matt Bennett, co-founder of the moderate group Third Way, agreed that the dynamics were “tricky” in trying to sell one just-passed bill as historic while simultaneously making the case that another ambitious bill is needed. Biden will travel to New Hampshire and Michigan next week to highlight the money the infrastructure bill will direct toward new roads, bridges and transit projects across the country.
“This moment that we're in is hard,” said Bennett. “It will be much, much easier when both bills are completed. There is a very profound political imperative for Democrats to get this finished, to end the infighting and sausage-making and shift to creating a narrative about what Democrats have just done for Americans because they've been utterly unable to do that.”
A number of groups plan to amp up pressure next week as Congress returns. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House have repeated their desire to have a vote on the social spending plan by the end of next week. The Service Employees International Union will descend on Capitol Hill with some 500 union members, said Mary Kay Henry, the union’s president.
“We are escalating phone calls, text messages,” said Henry. “We're bringing members into Washington next Tuesday, we have the president's back, to get Congress to act quickly and get the full back package.”
Democratic outside groups have spent more than $150 million on TV and digital ads promoting the president’s social spending plan, known as “Build Back Better.” The League of Conservation Voters and Climate Power launched new digital ads calling on the five moderates who reached an agreement with the White House and House leadership last week to follow through on their commitment to pass the second piece of Biden’s economic agenda “next week.”
The longer it takes to pass the social spending plan, the harder it becomes to keep the party unified, Democrats warn, especially amid up-and-down economic news. A new report Wednesday revealed inflation hit 6.2 percent in October, its highest point in 31 years, contributing to high gas, car and food prices. It forced Biden to quickly issue a statement addressing the issue and ever-so-slightly shift his messaging, arguing that passage of the social spending plan would combat inflation.
“Inflation hurts Americans’ pocketbooks, and reversing this trend is a top priority for me,” Biden said in a statement. “It is important that Congress pass my Build Back Better plan, which is fully paid for and does not add to the debt, and will get more Americans working by reducing the cost of child care and elder care, and help directly lower costs for American families.”
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