As time runs short, Dems vow: less talk, more action

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The window is rapidly closing on Democrats’ once-in-a-decade opportunity to clinch their agenda.

The party has just a few short weeks to land a deal on its massive social spending bill before returning to a government shutdown deadline and a debt ceiling standoff in the creeping shadow of the midterm election. Democrats are under enormous pressure to finalize Biden’s domestic agenda while they hold full control of Washington, but also to use their power to enact policies they’ve championed for 10 years or more.

The challenge of cutting a deal that can pass is squeezing Democrats’ tiny majorities: They need buy-in from all 50 senators, including reluctant moderates Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and nearly all their House members. Democrats also recognize, though rarely admit aloud, that this Congress might be the last time in a long time that they control the House, Senate and the White House.

“We have to move from performative losing to enacting laws. And this is our moment to demonstrate that we actually are serious about enacting the things that we run on, not just talking about them every two years,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “It’s just a fact that the trifecta doesn’t come around very often, and doesn’t last very long … whatever our window is, we have to understand that it’s fleeting.”

Since losing the House in 2010’s tea party wave, Democrats devised proposals on paid leave, climate action and early education that Republicans bottled up. If the party doesn’t capitalize now on the chance for a megabill stitching together those priorities, “we will be working on it for well over another decade,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a leading paid-leave advocate who visited with Biden at the White House last week.

“This is a moment in time, and the lesson is that that moment can escape us, and we can’t miss it,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a veteran of the decade-old Obamacare battle that saw the flip of a single Senate seat nearly take down the bill. “It’s just an old cliche: We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are now facing just a few weeks of congressional sessions before the end of the year, the familiar point at which party dealmaking typically hardens into gridlock before a midterm election. There are also two scheduled recesses in November and a long December layoff that could be in jeopardy without quick action.

In reality the party’s window may be a bit shorter than that: Government funding and the debt ceiling both need to be addressed before January, and those exercises can sap all of Congress’s energy. While it’s only year one of Biden’s first term, some Democrats are already reading the tea leaves for next November’s election — particularly in the House — and worry this fall could be their final shot at passing significant legislation.

The next three weeks, a deeply consequential stretch, will be largely focused on forging Democratic consensus on Biden’s social spending package, as the White House, Pelosi and Schumer work to slim that initial $3.5 trillion plan down to roughly half its size.

Publicly, negotiations on that bill have slowed to a crawl over the last two weeks as Biden has failed to secure commitments from Manchin and Sinema. What’s more, Manchin and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are locked in a spat over the bill that’s certainly not helping.

Still, Democrats close to the discussions insist that behind-the-scenes talks are still ongoing with the two leery centrists.

“I’ve been in contact with key folks in the House and the Senate. And discussions are continuing in earnest. And so I think we’re getting closer and closer. But we have to remember we’re lawmakers, we’re not law suggesters,” Schatz said.

Sinema, for instance, spoke by phone with Biden, White House advisers and Schumer’s team during last week’s recess, according to her office. Sinema and Manchin also held a call with a handful of House moderates last week to rehash some of their issues with the massive social spending plan, mapping out a possible path forward for it and the Senate-passed infrastructure bill, according to people familiar with the call. Some Democrats hope progress on those negotiations allow the infrastructure bill to pass ahead of Virginia’s gubernatorial race, which would set off alarm bells in the party if Republicans win.

Patience in the White House — and in many corners of the Democratic Party — is wearing thin. One administration source confirmed that Biden’s team believes it’s time for the negotiations to wrap up soon.

But Manchin and Sinema are in no rush, and other centrists say the party-line social safety net bill should no longer be tied to the infrastructure bill. They say passing laws will help Democrats’ keep control of Congress, no matter how those laws are sequenced.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) personally delivered that message to Biden when he visited her district earlier this month: “The president understands that people are at risk of losing faith in government, and therefore you have to actually deliver.”

“The best way to make sure you maintain that control is put points on the board,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). “I am very much in the camp of: Let’s get some of this done. And I think getting this done does not take away from the urgency or the ability to finish out the Build Back Better agenda.”

Pelosi has said she hopes to pass Biden’s infrastructure bill by Oct. 31, when a tranche of transportation programs are set to expire. But that would require securing votes from her liberal members who are still seeking public assurances from Manchin and Sinema that they’ll help pass the party’s broader spending plan.

The dual-track strategy already collapsed once in the House, when Democrats left town in late September without the infrastructure vote that had been promised to moderates. And some centrists don’t see their odds of passage improving this month without a dramatic escalation in the whip effort by their leadership as well as the White House.

“The Oct 31 deadline is Speaker Pelosi’s deadline. It is not a deadline the entire House voted on, like the Sept. 27 deadline. And even that deadline was violated. So I think it’s hard to imagine the Oct. 31 deadline will hold, if the speaker isn’t willing to get the votes for this bill,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.).

Meanwhile, the internal haggling about what should make it into the bill has intensified as Democrats attempt to craft a roughly $2 trillion package that can satisfy both wings of the party.

Some of Democrats’ long-time priorities could end up on the chopping block, because of fiscal or political implications — or both. That includes a progressive-backed expansion of Medicare benefits, a nationwide paid family leave plan or a new clean energy program.

Other factions of the party are worried their biggest demands, such as allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices or restoring a tax benefit for high-cost states, are also at risk of getting cut.

Rep. Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.) said that the party does agree on one thing — the need to pass more meaningful legislation this year: “That’s why there has to be compromise. That’s why there can’t be any absolutes.”

Marianne LeVine and Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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