Democrats Vow To Speed Legislative Agenda After Losses In Virginia And New Jersey

"It’s time for us to go to work,” said Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

WASHINGTON ― The stunning election results in Virginia statewide races and in New Jersey local contests, in which Republicans romped to victory, bolster the argument for passage of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda as quickly as possible, Democratic senators said Wednesday.

“I think it’s an accelerant. It’s time for us to go to work,” Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Republican Glenn Youngkin won Virginia’s gubernatorial race over former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat. In New Jersey, Republicans took a number of local races, and Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy barely squeaked out a win against Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli on Wednesday.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said the election results in both states “turbocharge those issues like reducing prescription drug costs because they are kitchen-table issues.”

Even before voters went to the polls on Tuesday, Democrats were racing to complete the Build Back Better bill, which would expand the social safety net, provide free health care and education, and tackle the threat of climate change.

The problem is that not every Senate Democrat supports quick passage of the bill.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of the centrist holdouts, reiterated on Wednesday that he needs more time to consider the measure, expressing concerns about its impact on inflation and the deficit.

“We better be very careful ... and make sure it’s transparent,” Manchin said.

Intraparty disagreements between the House and Senate also delayed work on the legislation, which is expected to cost about $1.75 trillion over 10 years, far short of the initial $3.5 trillion Democrats proposed over the summer. The outstanding issues just happen to be some of the most contentious provisions: prescription drugs, paid leave, climate change, taxes and immigration.

The plan is to pass that measure, alongside the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill the Senate already approved, in the coming weeks.

The House could vote as early as this week to send the infrastructure bill to Biden’s desk and to pass its version of the Build Back Better legislation. Over the weekend, progressive lawmakers dropped their objection to voting on the infrastructure bill without a firm commitment of support for the social spending bill from senators like Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), so it is likely to pass when it does come up for a vote.

In the Senate, Democrats are hoping to begin voting on the Build Back Better bill as soon as the week of Nov. 15, but that timeline could shift depending on Manchin’s position.

Virginia Democrats blamed McAuliffe’s loss in the commonwealth’s gubernatorial election directly on the lack of action on Capitol Hill. They argued that McAuliffe would have benefited greatly had Democrats passed both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and their Build Back Better legislation because he could have used support for those measures to win over voters.

“Congressional Dems hurt Terry McAuliffe. I mean, I’m going to be blunt. It’s humbling to say it,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told reporters on Wednesday.

“Imagine if you had a Terry McAuliffe talking to suburban voters about [how] we’re going to have affordable child care and universal pre-K, or sell a transportation infrastructure bill, saying, ‘Here’s what it’s going to mean for all these projects,’” Kaine added.

But that argument seems a bit overbaked. (It also ignores other issues that fired up Republican voters to turn out in droves on Tuesday such as the economy, education and COVID-19 restrictions.)

McAuliffe himself had nothing to do with the legislation being written on Capitol Hill. Neither the infrastructure overhaul nor the programs in the Build Back Better legislation will have an immediate impact on voters. Moreover, there was nothing stopping McAuliffe from touting programs such as affordable child care and universal pre-K on the campaign trail. They were part of his campaign platform, after all.

If there is a convincing argument to be made, it is that Democrats’ general dysfunction at getting their legislative agenda through Congress hurt the party’s standing with independent voters in Virginia, which swung heavily toward Youngkin. But it’s not as if Democrats stayed home on Tuesday; turnout was historically high among both parties.

Progressives, meanwhile, had a different theory for why McAuliffe lost on Tuesday: He focused too much on trying to paint Youngkin as a Trump acolyte, rather than on the issues at hand.

“Democrats won’t win simply by branding one opponent after another as a Trump clone, and then hoping to squeak out a razor-thin win,” the Progressive Change Campaign Committee said in a statement. “When Democrats fail to run on big ideas or fulfill bold campaign promises, we depress our base while allowing Republicans to use culture wars to hide their real agenda.”