Transforming America With a One-Vote Majority

Joe Biden’s economic plan is stalled in Congress because the warring wings of his party aren’t yet desperate enough to compromise. They could be soon.

The Capitol is shown in black-and-white, with its blurry, shifted mirror image superimposed.
Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg / Getty

The Democrats, you may have heard, are in disarray. President Joe Biden’s approval ratings have sunk to new lows, and his expansive economic agenda is stalled on Capitol Hill. Opposition from progressives forced House leaders to scrap a planned vote Thursday on the president’s lone bipartisan success in the Senate, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. That failure, and the ensuing finger-pointing, threatens to drive the party’s warring wings even further apart. Come Halloween, all that Biden might have to show for his negotiations with Congress over the past several months is a first-ever U.S. debt default—the presidential equivalent of sticking your hand into the candy bag and pulling out a razor blade instead.

Yet if Halloween is looking grim for Democrats, Christmas could bring more hope. These setbacks are not final or fatal, and time is still on their side. The deadlines Democrats missed this week were largely artificial, and House leaders said a vote on the infrastructure bill could still happen as early as Friday. Speaker Nancy Pelosi had promised moderates that the House would vote on the bipartisan infrastructure plan by the end of September. But the consequences of postponing that vote in the face of defeat don’t amount to much more than hard feelings in the long run. (The deadline that actually mattered—a September 30 due date for averting a government shutdown—is the one that Congress ultimately met, passing a temporary extension of funding yesterday afternoon.) The political imperative driving Democrats toward a deal on Biden’s economic agenda—the need to have something to deliver to voters by next year’s midterm elections—remains the same.

This is not to diminish the party’s real challenges. Democrats are not particularly close to an agreement on legislation, and the only certainty is that they will have to scale back both their $3.5 trillion target and the breadth of their ambitions to tackle climate change, expand child- and health-care programs, and implement universal pre-K, free community college, and paid family leave. Two Democratic senators—Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—have refused to firmly commit to even passing a bill, and either one of them could kill the proposal merely by walking away from negotiations. The delay also extends the risk that a serious illness or death could effectively nullify the Democratic Senate majority altogether.

What is confounding and ultimately constraining Democrats, however, is not the calendar but the minuscule size of their majorities. Republicans are unified in opposition to Biden’s plans to expand the social safety net. Democrats are therefore using a Senate budget process known as reconciliation that allows them to circumvent a filibuster and pass a bill with a simple majority. They can afford to lose just three votes in the House and not a single one of their 50 senators. Parties in countries with parliamentary systems of government routinely pass legislation on slim majorities, but that is not the tradition here. Rarely in recent memory has a political party in America tried to do so much with so slim a margin. The sweep of Biden’s proposals has invited comparisons to FDR’s New Deal, but Democrats in 1933 had more than 60 percent of the seats in the Senate and more than 70 percent in the House. Far more recently, Barack Obama briefly enjoyed a filibuster-proof 60 Democratic seats in the Senate and a House margin in the dozens. Progressives like to imagine that Republicans are more effective at wielding power, but when the GOP controlled both Congress and the White House under Donald Trump, the only major law it passed was the 2017 tax cut.

In the 2020 election, voters elected Joe Biden, but Republicans gained seats in the House, and the Senate wound up dead even; Democrats captured control based solely on Vice President Kamala’s Harris’s tiebreaking vote. “Regularly there’s talk on Capitol Hill that acts like there’s some mandate for the largest legislative package, at least since the Great Society programs of the ’60s and maybe since the 1930s. That’s not true,” Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska said yesterday in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic Festival. “Yet people do that because they misread anti-politics as a mandate for something.” Sasse, a Republican opposed to Biden’s agenda, is no unbiased observer. But Pelosi made the same point in an interview with Goldberg a day earlier. “President Roosevelt had 319 Democrats in the Congress when he put forth his agenda,” she said. “Not that it wasn’t transformational—but this is transformational, too, with a smaller margin.”

Competing demands by Manchin and Sinema illustrate just how difficult the Democratic leadership’s task is. Manchin, who won his seat after airing an ad in which he literally shot a hole through Obama’s 2010 climate bill, opposes several of the Democratic proposals to combat climate change. He wants the party to base its reconciliation bill on reversing the 2017 Trump tax cuts. Sinema, however, reportedly opposes raising corporate and individual tax rates but wants to prioritize the climate provisions. Democrats need both to vote for the final bill, and they need the support of 218 members of the House who have wish lists of their own.

As I wrote earlier this week, the fact that Democrats are even debating a $3.5 trillion bill, on top of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan enacted this spring and the $1.2 trillion infrastructure measure, represents a victory for the progressive wing of the party. Slash the proposal by half, and it would still rank as an enormous legislative achievement. Indeed, that is what might end up happening. As Pelosi was still holding out hope for passing the infrastructure bill Thursday afternoon, Manchin confirmed to reporters that he had told Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that he wanted the broader economic bill to cost no more than $1.5 trillion. Progressives had been badgering Manchin and Sinema to give them a price tag that they could support as a sign they were committed to passing the reconciliation bill. But progressives were unlikely to be pleased with the answer.

Blocking passage of an infrastructure bill important to moderates was the only leverage progressives had to ensure that moderates would not abandon the second, more far-reaching bill. Pelosi thought she could wear them down, and that if she could secure a framework agreement on the reconciliation bill, she could win progressive votes. All Manchin and Sinema offered was a willingness to keep talking. Ultimately, however, that might be enough. The last time Democrats controlled Washington, they didn’t pass their signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, until March 2010, and that was after the bill had been declared dead a few times. What united the party was a fear of failure and a desperation to have something to show for the power voters had handed them. Biden needs that sense of desperation to drive moderates and progressives to compromise, and the closer the calendar gets to 2022 without action, the more that desperation will increase. But on Thursday at least, Democrats weren’t desperate enough.