Liberal Democrats left an indelible mark on Washington by refusing to yield to moderates and blocking a bipartisan $1.2 billion infrastructure package in exchange for a $3.5 trillion social spending and climate bill. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona used the unprecedented power of their single votes in a 50-50 Senate to maintain their moderate stance against the wing of their party exemplified by Vermont Democratic Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Nonetheless, the brawl cast new concerns about the fate of Biden’s agenda. Meanwhile, Sunday’s confrontations on political talk shows demonstrated how far the party is from creating a cohesive route ahead in the coming days. Some progressive activists argue that last week’s late-night brinkmanship and uncommon disobedience of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi salvaged Biden’s wider goal by keeping moderates interested who want the infrastructure package passed as soon as possible.

That may be true, but it has also increased suspicion among the Democratic caucus in the House and sowed enmity between the left on one side of the Capitol and Senate moderates on the other, complicating a resolution of the fight.

For Americans who aren’t Beltway journalists or liberal activists keeping score on Twitter, Democratic infighting risks coming off as usual Washington dysfunction in the run-up to next year’s midterm elections, when Democrats are already attempting to overcome a historical disadvantage.

Progressives have reluctantly accepted that a package funding home health care for the sick and elderly, dental and hearing benefits for seniors, free Pre-K and community college, and climate change mitigation must be reduced from the $3.5 trillion level – which is already far below their initial bid of $6 trillion. However, there is still no clear agreement on whether Manchin will agree to go past his own $1.5 trillion cap. A package valued at approximately $2 trillion, a figure proposed by Biden in a meeting with Capitol Hill Democrats on Friday, according to CNN, will force progressives to choose between competing agendas.

Back from the brink of disaster

Massive legislation is rarely passed without near-disasters in Washington. The prospect of failure is frequently the only factor that pushes competing factions to reach an agreement. Even a reduced and final combined infrastructure and social spending punch of $3 trillion – following an earlier $1.9 trillion Covid relief programme that lowered poverty – would represent an excellent domestic achievement list for Biden’s first year in office. It would also be a kind of validation for Sanders’ two presidential bids, as an independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, which helped shift the Democratic Party away from centrist incrementalism.

Still, the notion that Democrats have lots of time is dangerous. Under certain conditions, a serious illness or death among their ranks in the Senate could deprive the party of a majority to enact the spending bill through the filibuster-defying mechanism of reconciliation, leaving the infrastructure bill – which vulnerable House Democrats are eager to tout back home – marooned in their chamber. And, until the funding bill is passed, Democrats will be hounded by questions about whether they are trying to go too far, given the House and Senate’s minuscule majorities, which do not reflect a mandate for drastic change.
Republicans are holding the economy hostage by refusing to assist raise the debt ceiling ahead of a mid-October deadline, and Democrats are struggling to effectively use their position, putting the White House in jeopardy of further harm after a difficult summer.
While the vicious resurgence of the pandemic in recent months was largely due to factors beyond Biden’s control, such as conservatives’ unwillingness to get vaccinated or take masking precautions, he is still paying a political price for the virus’s grinding battle and the punishing economic consequences it leaves in its wake. On Friday, the United States passed the 700,000-death mark, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Outside of Washington, soaring fuel, oil, and basic commodity prices – bacon, for example, is more expensive than it has been in 40 years – could make Democratic infighting appear self-absorbed. As a result, the integrity of Biden’s administration’s core purpose – demonstrating that government can act to solve ordinary people’s problems – may be jeopardised.

The stakes for Democrats are high and extend far beyond the midterm elections next year, when history suggests they will face a difficult time with the president’s party regularly losing seats. Chaos, disillusionment with Washington, and dysfunction may only exacerbate this country’s internal political estrangement and contribute to the sense of failed and illegitimate establishment rule that an increasingly authoritarian ex-President Donald Trump, along with large elements of the GOP, is attempting to ride back to power.

Still no deal on the size of the package

Over the weekend, there were few evidence that the public conflicts inside Democratic ranks that pushed Pelosi to pull the infrastructure vote had caused the major players to fold their hands.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, admitted on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the $3.5 trillion headline number for the spending package was now out of reach, but rejected Manchin’s $1.5 trillion limit, which he has subscribed to for weeks and publicly reiterated last week. Jayapal, who represents a seat in Washington state, refused to say whether the spending proposal was too small at $2 trillion.

She drew another line on Sunday, saying she would not support a plan that includes the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits most federal money for abortions, something Manchin claimed last week was required for his support.

Meanwhile, Sanders said that Biden was operating under the idea that the final spending package would be approximately $2 trillion. “He stated that there will have to be some give and take on both sides. “I’m not sure he did present a particular amount,” Sanders, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.””

The Vermont independent also increased pressure on Sinema after the Arizona senator published a statement slamming progressives for holding the infrastructure bill hostage and arguing that party leaders had chosen to disregard the obvious and long-term divisions over the spending plan.

“I think the people of Arizona are beginning to stand up and show some impatience there, saying, senator, join the team here, let’s get something done on reconciliation,” Sanders said on NBC.

Should Biden do more?

Last week, Biden, a veteran of more than a half-century in Washington deal-making, spent hours meeting and talking with senators as the party’s Capitol Hill leaders worked to build a consensus. However, he did not make a significant public push to advance the discussions, raising suspicions about his role.

On the one hand, Biden’s choice not to try to force the party’s progressive side allowed them to enjoy a moment of victory that could provide political cover for a compromise. And Biden’s choice not to publicly break with Manchin preserved a connection that will be critical in any attempt to persuade the West Virginia senator to raise the spending bill’s top-line price tag. However, the President’s decision to travel to Michigan on Tuesday to rally support for the infrastructure bill and the spending plan may indicate that the White House recognises that he needs to be more assertive in public.

One intriguing aspect of the fight between rival Democrats on both the infrastructure bill and the spending plan known as the “Build Back Better” agenda is that the tactics of the debate have gotten more attention than the massively ambitious spending on health, education, job creation, and climate mitigation designed to remodel the economy and ease the plight of working Americans.

A sharper focus on the program’s deliverables – and their funding through tax increases on wealthy persons and companies – may not only help build bridges between mistrustful Democrats, but may also be critical in selling voters on the merits of the measures if they ever pass.

Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan, a member of both the centrist, bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told CNN’s Pamela Brown on Saturday that a difficult week has provided some clarity for Democrats while also emphasising the risks they confront.

“While everyone else is predicting doom and gloom, I believe that towards the end of the week, it became apparent exactly what the President wants.” We know where we stand with the reality of two senators who will… agree to some things, but we must keep them at the table.

“Democrats are unified that failure is not an option. And it’s not. We have to deliver for the American people.”