WASHINGTON – With President Biden’s approval ratings falling below 50% after the most difficult period of his young administration, advancing his ambitious legislative agenda has taken on new urgency for Democratic lawmakers.
Recognizing that a president’s popularity is the best indicator of how his party will fare in the midterm elections, Democrats face a grim prospect: if Mr Biden does not succeed in the halls of the Congress this fall, it could doom his party’s majorities in the polls next fall.
Not that such a do-or-die dilemma is in itself enough to stop the Democrats’ intra-party feuds, which the president called a “dead end” on Friday. Divisions between moderates and liberals over the substance, price, and even the legislative timeline of Mr Biden’s two priorities, a bipartisan public works bill and broader welfare legislation, could further undermine the proposals.
But it’s increasingly clear to Democratic officials that beyond fully containing the still raging pandemic, the only way Mr. Biden can bounce back politically – and the party can maintain its tenuous hold. on power on Capitol Hill – is whether he and they are capable of presenting tangible achievements to voters.
“For us to be successful in the midterm elections next year, tens of millions of Americans must see that giving Democrats the opportunity to pass big bills makes a difference in their lives,” said the Senator Christopher A. Coons of Delaware, a relative of Biden. ally, highlighting the infrastructure bill and elements of the second larger measure such as subsidized daycare and tuition assistance.
A year, Mr. Coons added, “is a long time. If we can offer the things that matter in people’s lives, we will be successful. “
That’s little comfort, however, for the Democrat facing this year’s most competitive election.
Voting is already underway in the Virginia governor’s race, and just five weeks before Election Day, the race between former Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, and business executive Glenn Youngkin has drawn closer, in part because of Mr. Biden’s decline. polls.
In an interview, the rarely subtle McAuliffe pointed to the risk posed by congressional inaction, almost demanding that lawmakers act.
“Voters didn’t send Democrats to Washington to sit and chat all day,” said McAuliffe, himself a former national party chairman. “They have to get there.”
Voters, he said, want “to see jurisdiction; they want to see people doing their jobs.
Mr McAuliffe, who is at an impasse with Mr Youngkin in both public and private polls, is close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a number of White House officials. He and his advisers have been direct with Biden’s aides about the proximity of the governor’s race and argued that the bitter political environment for Democrats is why the contest has become more competitive, officials say. party familiar with the conversations.
With his state voters already voting, Mr McAuliffe is keen to see House Democrats pass the $ 1.9 trillion infrastructure bill, which cleared the Senate with 69 votes this summer. Ms Pelosi promised a group of centrist lawmakers last month that she would put the measure to a vote by Monday. But with progressives vowing to vote against the infrastructure bill until a vote is taken on broader social protection legislation, that timeline is now uncertain.
“We are desperate for this,” McAuliffe said of how he and other current governors perceive the measure of public works, adding: “We need to fix our roads, our bridges. This is too important. .
Her moderate colleagues, while not feeling quite the same level of political urgency, agree and are puzzled by Mr. Biden’s failure to pressure both Ms. Pelosi and the recalcitrant progressives. for them to approve the bill on infrastructure and provide it with substantial and indispensable aid, victory.
“I would love to see President Biden with a helmet and a shovel launch some of the infrastructure programs that we would pass in this bill,” said Representative Stephanie Murphy of Florida, one of the centrists summoned to the House. Blanche this week.
Mr Biden, however, carefully interposes himself between competing factions in his party, acknowledging that he cannot upset either wing when he has only 50 Democrats in the Senate and a majority of three seats in the House.
He was hesitant to separate the two bills entirely because of what is practically an open secret on Capitol Hill: If they pass the public works measure, progressive lawmakers don’t trust their moderate counterparts to agree to a expansive welfare bill, even reduced. in the current plan price of $ 3.5 trillion.
“I would be very concerned that if we did, we would never come up with a bigger bill,” said Representative Karen Bass, Democrat of California, of the passage next week of the bill. measure on infrastructure without simultaneously voting on a second approved bill.
Progressives have reason to be skeptical. There are several House centrists who are uncomfortable with additional spending and tax increases, although many elements of the Welfare Bill are widely popular, such as those allowing officials to Medicare to negotiate the prices of prescription drugs and add dental and vision care to the program.
Even if the House could come to a deal reaching a bare Democratic majority – no Republican in Congress is expected to support the Welfare Bill – it is far from certain that a compromise could pass through the Senate, where losing a Democrat would doom the proposal. .
West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin II made it clear that he was in no particular rush to accept the so-called reconciliation bill – named after the Senate procedure that protects the measure from obstruction. –And Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona balked at the tax hikes that would fund the measure.
“Until now, there was no reason to believe that what they are saying is actually what they are going to do,” Washington Representative Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Progressive Caucus, said of Democrats of the Senate.
Beyond the specific political elements and payment mechanisms being discussed, the disagreement reflects a deeper and long-standing split between Democrats. The Liberals believe voters will punish them in 2022 if they fail to stick to Mr. Biden’s broad campaign platform, in part because it would demoralize their core voters and ensure some of them stay home.
Some moderates, however, believe the historically tough first midterm for the president’s party would be made worse if they gave Republicans food to portray them as tax and spendthrift liberals at a time when inflation has surged.
Republican officials relish their opponents’ dilemma, a fact highlighted by the assessment of Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, this week.
Suggesting Democrats will be seen as incompetent or overly liberal, Mr McConnell said of the twin bills: Pass it.
Veteran Democratic lawmakers are more optimistic, having long observed fluctuations in presidential approval ratings.
“It’s been a bad few weeks for Biden; it’s not going to stick, ”said Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who highlighted a key element of the sweeping Covid revival bill that Democrats passed in March. “We could go home with the child tax credit alone,” he said, referring to the refundable benefit that most families are already using.
Privately, however, some Democrats fear that the party has done too little to promote these achievements and that in a highly polarized country they would not even reap much political payoff for them as many voters are fixated on the issue. exit from the pandemic.
The specter of 2010 looms: a unified Democratic government passed the Affordable Care Act and suffered significant losses again in the fall.
Asked about the importance of keeping Mr. Biden’s promises, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, leader of the Democratic House campaign arm, said: “You should judge us on our record of results.”
But in his next breath, he sought to ensure that the midterms would be as much a choice between the two parties as a referendum on the Democratic regime.
“The recklessness and irresponsibility – not to mention the theories of racism and conspiracy and destructive behavior – Republicans are also going to have something to do with mid-terms,” he said.
In Virginia, Mr McAuliffe made similar charges, linking his Republican opponent to Mr Trump and lambasting him for refusing to support a vaccination mandate.
But few know better than the former governor, who by state law could not stand for re-election after his previous term, that elections in Virginia can trigger national events.
Mr McAuliffe won by a closer-than-expected margin in 2013, and with the help of a libertarian on the ballot, after the health-care trade-in of the Affordable Care Act was botched that fall by the administration of former President Barack Obama.
Four years later, Mr McAuliffe’s preferred successor, Governor Ralph S. Northam, won by an even larger margin than pre-election polls suggested due to huge turnout from Democrats and Independents outraged by Mr. Trump’s substandard behavior.
“The candidates are unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on which side you are on – at the mercy of national forces beyond their control,” said J. Tucker Martin, Republican strategist in Richmond. “It has been a constant. And that’s just the reality of running across the state of Virginia a year after a presidential election. Much of the conversation isn’t really about you.
For months, Democrats and Republicans in Virginia viewed Mr. McAuliffe as the frontrunner as long as Mr. Biden’s endorsement resisted. Now that the polls show the president is only breaking even in a state he carried 10 points last year, however, the race is much smoother.
And if Virginia, which hasn’t elected a Republican to any statewide office for more than a decade, may turn red in November, it could be of concern to the party nationwide. next year.
“We have to do both,” Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, said of the two bills this fall. “I know it’s easy to say. It is more difficult to do. “