Democrats Stare Into the Abyss
Will the president’s party pass major legislation before the midterm elections?
Since mid-summer, Democrats have been trapped in a downward spiral of declining approval ratings for President Joe Biden, rising public anxiety about the country’s direction, and widening internal divisions over the party’s legislative agenda. The next few weeks will likely determine whether they have bottomed out and can begin to regain momentum before next year’s midterm elections.
Roughly since the rise of the Delta variant sent COVID-19 caseloads soaring again, the White House and congressional Democrats have faced a debilitating slog of dashed hopes and diminished expectations. Weeks of negotiation over the party’s massive economic-development and social-safety-net bill have mostly continued that story, with Democratic groups lamenting the loss of programs that are being lopped off to meet the objections primarily of two centrist Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—the same duo whose resistance to changing the Senate filibuster rule has so far stymied the party’s hopes of passing legislation establishing a nationwide floor for voting rights. Amid all of these reversals, anxiety is rising among Democrats about whether they can hold the governorship in next month’s election in Virginia—a state Biden carried last year by 10 points.
But after months of steady retreat, Biden and congressional Democrats are currently engaged in intense negotiations that will decide whether (and in what form) they can pass their sweeping economic and safety-net bill. And after a Republican filibuster on Wednesday blocked the Democrats’ latest proposal to combat the voting-rights restrictions proliferating in red states, the party now squarely faces the choice that many activists consider an even more existential decision: whether it will reform the filibuster to pass that legislation.
On both fronts, these deliberations provide the party a chance to finally begin posting legislative victories on significant priorities. For all that may be eliminated from the economic bill, which the party is seeking to pass under the reconciliation process that preempts a GOP filibuster, it could still encompass the biggest increase in both public investment and the social safety net since the 1960s, pumping money into programs for kids, health care, economic development, and climate change.
“The process has certainly been challenging, and we’ll still have far more to do to achieve economic and racial justice,” says Sharon Parrott, the president of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “But I think [this package] will be a very important set of significant policy advances that will be game-changing in a lot of ways.”
Passing the reconciliation bill would also clear the way for passage of the extensive bipartisan infrastructure package approved earlier this year in the Senate. And once reconciliation and infrastructure are completed, many hope Biden and other party leaders can intensify pressure on Manchin and Sinema to find some way to exempt voting-rights legislation from the filibuster.
“The fact that reconciliation has stretched this long has definitely been harmful to the efforts to move Manchin and Sinema on voting rights and the filibuster,” says Eli Zupnick, a spokesperson for the liberal advocacy group Fix Our Senate. “My theory, and I think everyone’s theory throughout … is that once [the White House] got through reconciliation, they felt they could expend political capital with Manchin and Sinema in a way that they could not with reconciliation hanging out there.”
Democrats could still fall from this tightrope. Progressives could demand the inclusion of too many programs, even in truncated form, to realistically meet the spending ceiling Manchin and Sinema have set. Sinema’s resistance to higher tax rates, in turn, could make it impossible for the party to fund even a more modest version of its plans. And even if Democrats can solve the Rubik’s Cube of the reconciliation bill, nothing may move Manchin and Sinema from their defense of the filibuster, which on voting rights, as I’ve written, illogically gives Senate Republicans a veto on whether Washington responds to the restrictions that their Republican colleagues in the states are passing.
Moreover, the evidence of history is that legislative success in a president’s first year doesn’t guarantee electoral success in the midterm elections of his second year. Voter assessments of current conditions, on the economy and the country’s overall direction, have seemed to matter more. But while legislative success hasn’t been sufficient to ensure successful midterm contests, it may still be necessary to avoid the worst: The collapse of a party’s agenda can disillusion its core voters and send a signal of disarray to swing voters.
A wide range of strategists from across the party’s ideological spectrum have escalated their calls in recent days for the party to arrive at a budget deal—almost any deal. Simon Rosenberg, the president of NDN, a Democratic research and advocacy group, has argued for weeks that Democrats need to conclude the legislative wrangling so they can shift their focus back to the public’s top priority: containing the coronavirus pandemic and undoing the economic damage associated with it.
On Wednesday, the centrist group Third Way and the liberal polling organization Data for Progress held an unusual joint press conference to encourage Democrats to reach an agreement. “There are enormous substantive reasons why it’s important for individual components of this package to be included, but politically, what will matter most for Democrats is that the bills are done,” Sean McElwee, a co-founder and the executive director of Data for Progress, said during the event. “The sooner we can get these bills finalized … the sooner we can demonstrate, to both our base and the independents, that we are unified as a party and able to get things done. That’s why there is real urgency around getting this across the finish line.”
One reason for that urgency is the Virginia governor’s race on November 2. Democrats have been unnerved by former Governor Terry McAuliffe’s inability to establish a safe advantage over the Republican Glenn Youngkin in the race to succeed Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, who is term-limited.
A Youngkin victory would actually fit the state’s long tradition of pushing back against the president’s party: The party out of the White House has won every Virginia governor’s race since 1977 with just one exception—McAuliffe’s 2013 victory, the year after Barack Obama’s reelection. But given the state’s blue tilt since then, a McAuliffe loss would still rattle Democrats, particularly because evidence suggests that Biden’s sagging popularity is exerting an undertow on the governor: A Monmouth University poll released Wednesday found that a 52 percent majority of registered voters in the state now disapprove of Biden’s performance, and just over four-fifths of those disapprovers are backing Youngkin. McAuliffe is winning an even higher percentage of those who approve of Biden, but just 43 percent of voters express such positive views of him, the poll found. (A Fox News poll in Virginia last week showed Biden’s approval at 50 percent and McAuliffe narrowly leading.) McAuliffe has publicly pleaded for congressional Democrats to finish their work, particularly on the infrastructure bill.
Reaching agreement on the reconciliation bill (and the infrastructure package whose passage it would trigger) would hardly solve all of the Democrats’ problems. Economic unease, particularly over inflation, is rising, which some Democrats believe is the key reason Biden’s approval rating hasn’t recovered in most surveys (or has even continued falling) as the Delta wave has started to recede. No matter what happens on reconciliation, a long list of party priorities that passed the House appear doomed by the Senate filibuster, including immigration and police reform, LGBTQ equality, and gun control. And the final reconciliation bill, coming in at a price tag far below the original goal of $3.5 trillion, will inevitably be conspicuous for what it leaves out, including free community college and provisions pushing utilities to shift toward clean-energy sources. Depending on how talks with the unpredictable Sinema pan out, Biden could even be forced to retrench (or eliminate) a plan the party has discussed for 20 years to allow Medicare to negotiate lower prescription-drug prices. Sinema’s resistance could also force Biden to accept little or no progress at reversing the reductions in corporate- and income-tax rates approved by Donald Trump and the Republican Congress—tax cuts that every Democrat in both chambers (including Sinema) voted against. Those would all be bitter pills for much of the party to swallow.
Voting rights, which is now proceeding on a completely separate path, may offer Democrats their best chance to heal those bruises and unite the party heading into 2022.
For many party activists and strategists, the fate of the voting-rights bill is even more consequential than what happens to the reconciliation budget package. Amid all the red-state measures restricting access to the ballot and increasing Republican leverage over election administration, if Democrats cannot secure voting rights, “I think it would be a failed Congress,” Zupnick says, in a widely shared view. “It would be seen as the biggest missed opportunity and biggest political mistake in a generation at least. If they don’t take steps now to protect our democracy, the window could shut and there may not be another chance. This cannot be seen as a successful Congress no matter how strong the reconciliation bill is if they do not do something on democracy protection.”
For months, activists have complained that Biden and the White House have focused far more on passing the reconciliation bill than on passing the voting-rights legislation—an imbalance apparent in the president’s priorities this week on the former even as the GOP blocked the party’s latest version of the latter. Biden, at a CNN town hall last night, said explicitly that he intended to complete his reconciliation bill before fully focusing on the voting-rights legislation—opening the door, for the first time, to supporting an exemption from the filibuster if necessary to pass it.
But the party’s best chance to solve both of these problems may be to link them. It’s possible to imagine a grand bargain in which House and Senate progressives would accept the smaller reconciliation bill that Manchin and Sinema are demanding in return for them creating some exemption from the filibuster for voting rights.
Manchin and Sinema, as some Democrats told me this week, may feel they already have enough leverage on both fronts that they don’t need to make any deals. But while Manchin is essentially immune to intra-party pressure in West Virginia, agreeing to advance the voting-rights bill would surely represent Sinema’s best opportunity to undo (or at least soften) the animus she’s generated among Democratic activists in Washington, D.C., and Arizona with her actions on issues such as the minimum wage and the reconciliation bill.
“It may be time for Dems to start thinking even more out of the box, given our thin majorities and struggles to get our agenda passed,” Rosenberg told me when I ran the idea of a grand bargain by him. “The endgame on reconciliation is going to be very hard, and perhaps something like this may be just the thing to get us to a good and smart final deal.”
In his floor speech after the latest GOP filibuster blocked the Democrats’ voting-rights bill, on Wednesday, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer noted that the Lincoln-era congressional Republican majorities passed the major Reconstruction civil-rights laws—including the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments—on an entirely party-line basis, without a single vote from House or Senate Democrats (who were defending their allies in the former Confederate states.) “To the patriots after the Civil War, this wasn’t partisan—it was patriotic, and American democracy is better off today because the patriots in this chamber at that time were undeterred by minority obstruction,” Schumer insisted. A grand bargain among Democrats that simultaneously resolves their disputes over the spending bill and voting rights may be their best chance to uphold that tradition today—and reverse their own fading fortunes before 2022.