President Joe Biden successfully brought his party together to unilaterally pass the American Rescue Plan, their $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill, earlier this year.
Now, he must reconcile their differences on an even more ambitious and controversial domestic spending measure, the Build Back Better Act, which seeks to address health care, child care, the changing climate, education, housing and more.
With Democrats beset by divisions in both the House and Senate and Republicans plotting how to scuttle the massive proposal with separate demands over the debt limit, Biden’s agenda faces a do-or-die moment on Capitol Hill.
“We are on schedule, that’s all I will say. And everybody’s calm and everybody’s good and our work is almost done,” a sanguine House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters on Wednesday after meeting with Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) at the White House.
Schumer said they made “good progress” and that negotiations over the bill’s scope and the Democratic agenda are “moving along.”
Biden held separate meetings Wednesday with a group of moderate Democrats, as well as a group of progressives. The two ideological wings of the party have been openly sparring over the size of the Build Back Better bill and its included policies.
The cost of the bill is technically limited to a maximum of $3.5 trillion. However, most of that will be offset with revenue from tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations.
The party is also at war over the legislative sequencing of the Build Back Better agenda. Moderates are demanding the House vote next week on the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that the Senate passed earlier this year. That legislation is aimed at overhauling the nation’s “hard” infrastructure, only, with funding for the building of new roads, bridges and waterways.
But progressives in the House are threatening to vote against the bipartisan bill until the Senate passes the Build Back Better measure, which includes many liberal priorities such as additional child tax credit payments and funding to fight climate change.
“I know there’s myself and 50 members who would vote no if we can’t get the entire Biden agenda done,” House Progressive Caucus member Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) warned Wednesday in an interview with CNN.
A group of 11 progressives in the Senate cheered their counterparts in the House, calling on Democratic leaders to postpone a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the Senate finishes its work.
“We voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill with the clear commitment that the two pieces of the package would move together along a dual track. Abandoning the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act and passing the infrastructure bill first would be in violation of that agreement,” the group of senators, led by Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said in a statement.
The intra-party showdown is putting Biden’s reputation as a master negotiator to the test once more. Both wings of his party have issued competing ultimatums as the legislation has advanced in Congress. If neither side gives, Biden won’t get a chance to sign anything ― not the bill progressives want, nor the one moderates want. Democrats would be forced to confront next year’s midterm elections with sagging poll numbers and little to show for their efforts.
Both sides do agree that if anyone can bring the party to the finish line, it’s Biden. The long-time former senator united his party during the 2020 presidential election and made Donald Trump a one-term president. He followed up by signing into law the American Rescue Plan, which contained some of the biggest progressive pieces of legislation in a generation.
Still, Democrats are far more divided over their $3.5 trillion budget than they were earlier this year when they pushed through their coronavirus relief bill. That legislation had more urgency and Democrats had an easier job of selling it to the public. The Build Back Better bill touches far more federal policy and is a bigger target for Republicans and the armies of lobbyists in Washington seeking to defang or outright defeat it in Congress.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) urged Biden to “keep everybody on track” as he met with Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday.
“We’re all Democrats. We’re all trying to get to the same endpoint. We just need to make sure nobody gets caught in the switches here or left behind,” she said.