Democrats have a Goldilocks problem with President Joe Biden’s social spending plan.
Too big, some moderates worry it could cost them their seats. Too small, and progressives fret the base will stay home.
But almost everybody concedes that if they fail to pass anything, there may be no path to keeping their majorities in Congress next November.
“It’s one that we shoot ourselves in the foot if we don’t pass it,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), referring to Biden’s two-part agenda on infrastructure and social safety net programs. “I think it’s on everybody’s minds, this is the last best chance to pass something big.”
“Passing both infrastructure and reconciliation are absolutely critical to Democrats maintaining a majority in the House and potentially in the Senate,” echoed Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a former chair of the Democratic National Committee. “And then that is directly related to the success of Biden’s first term as president.”
As liberals and centrists offer competing pitches on the size and scope of the president’s mammoth spending plan, many Democrats insist they aren’t focused on the political stakes of Biden’s agenda. But with Biden’s approval rating slipping, many Democrats across the map privately concede that achieving the president’s two major priorities will be crucial as they stare down an all-but-impossible map in the House and no seats to lose in the Senate.
Meanwhile, GOP attack ads are blanketing swing districts from Iowa to Florida to Pennsylvania, calling the bill a “socialist” spending plan that gives tax breaks to Democrats’ “rich friends.” Vulnerable Democrats in New Jersey have faced a barrage of ads accusing them of cutting Medicare.
“Nobody’s saying, ‘You know, politically, we need to do this,’” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). “However, I’m sure there are some who are thinking the obvious, which is, we can’t do anything to damage the president. Because in so doing, we damage our chances of defending the majority.”
If Democrats fail, “then we show, we as a governing majority cannot get things passed,” warned Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas).
Party leaders bet that the pressure to deliver will eventually unite progressives and moderates, who are in a prolonged standoff over how far to go with their once-in-a-decade chance to remake major federal programs. And Democrats point out that many of their proposals — such as expanding paid family leave, hiking taxes on the wealthy and addressing climate change — are broadly popular.
The most vulnerable Democrats in the House are bear-hugging policies such as universal child care and government negotiations on drug prices. But the price tag — which began at $3.5 trillion but is expected to land closer to $2 trillion — remains a huge political hot potato, and Republicans’ most obvious target.
The GOP attacks are surfacing in places where Democrats face the toughest elections. And the onslaught of ads makes it feel like the election is just weeks away, not a full year. Until the bill is fully written, Democrats can’t flip the script to talk about the popular policies that are actually in the bill.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) recalled that when she and Biden toured her battleground district last week, the motorcade passed people protesting the size of the package.
“They think that it’s $3.5 [trillion], and they think it’s not paid for,” Slotkin said, underscoring the importance of a party-wide message. But she stressed: “I really wanna see transformative work on child care. I want to see negotiations on drug prices that will actually save us money.”
Biden himself has repeatedly asked lawmakers not to dwell on the price tag, including during a private call with swing-district House Democrats on Tuesday. In the same call, he was urged by one of those vulnerable Democrats to more effectively talk about how the sprawling bill “isn’t going to cost anything,” since it will be fully offset, according to a person on the call.
Biden and his team have indicated they’re listening.
“We’re going to make sure that everything we do here is paid for and not a single penny raised in taxes of anybody making under $400,000,” Biden told a crowd in Michigan after that call on Tuesday.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has advocated for a package as large as $6 trillion, argued that the contents matter far more than the price tag.
“Democrats have talked for a very long time about child care, health care and fighting back against the climate crisis,” Warren said. “We made promises. We need to keep our promises.”
Senior Democrats have privately said they hope to frame the bill broadly around family, health care and climate. But given the bill would cover a range of policies — unlike the Affordable Care Act — some worry it could be difficult to explain to voters.
“If we do a lot of things … it may not be clear to people what the investment has been in,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), who leads the centrist New Democrat Coalition and is urging party leaders to narrow the scope of their bill and focus instead on long-lasting policies.
Many of her group’s members are in tough districts, and she said they “want to make sure that folks understand directly the investments that we’re making and the impact it’ll have on their communities, and how important it is to deliver those results.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are watching the internal haggling among Democrats with glee, predicting it will become a major campaign issue next fall. And they have magnifying glasses on hand for any controversial policies that make it into the bill.
“We need to do a better job of explaining what’s in the package, because we’ve been watching as spectators to see if they can make it across this high wire that they’re walking on,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former chair of the Senate GOP campaign arm.
Senate Democrats up for reelection in 2022 are pushing for Congress to act swiftly, even as most of the attention is currently focused on negotiations between the White House and moderate Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
“The issues are urgent. We need to get it done as quickly as possible,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), who faces one of the most competitive Senate races next year. “It’s taking longer than we’d hoped but we’ll get it done. … For the sake of people in my state, the 640,000 Georgians who are in the Medicaid gap, I want to get this done as quickly as possible.”
Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), another Democrat up in 2022, didn’t offer a specific timeline for when both bills need to pass, but said he’d prefer the bipartisan physical infrastructure “gets done sooner rather than later.” Kelly added that “it’s more important to get the details right” when asked about the party’s pace on the social spending plan.
Democrats who lived through the Obama years — the last time their party lost the House after a huge policy battle — argue that there are key differences between 2009 and now.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said Democrats needed to focus on an outcome they could actually achieve with their narrow majorities, or they risk ending up with nothing.
“We cannot retreat into our corners. We cannot stamp our feet,” Wasserman Schultz said. When some of her priorities were left out of Obamacare, she still backed the final product: “What we were left with was very significant health care reform.”