WASHINGTON — Democrats have seen this movie before.
A Democratic president engages in protracted negotiations with Republicans over his top legislative priority. The GOP wants more time. The president gives it to them, holding on to hope he can ink a historic bipartisan deal.
Democratic veterans of the 2009 fight over the Affordable Care Act say it's déjà vu watching President Joe Biden hold another meeting Wednesday with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the GOP’s point person on infrastructure. And in their experience, it doesn't end well.
Democratic operatives insist that Republicans, led then and now by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are stringing Biden along as they did then-President Barack Obama.
Jim Messina, Obama’s deputy chief of staff from 2009 to 2011, is urging Biden not to “make that mistake again,” saying that stretching out talks could blow back on Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections.
“When you look back on my ACA days, it should’ve been apparent to us at the time. We waited too long,” Messina said.
The White House is working to allay the fears within their party of a repeat of 2009 with infrastructure.
“Literally every time we have a conversation about bipartisanship, there's someone in the White House saying they've all learned the lessons of the ACA,” said a senior House progressive aide, who requested anonymity to describe internal deliberations.
'Running out the clock'
The White House called Wednesday's meeting “constructive and frank” and said the two sides agreed to reconnect on Friday. The most recent offers found the two sides to be roughly $1.4 trillion apart and unable to agree on a definition of “infrastructure.” Biden continues to bank on the popularity of his proposals to persuade Republicans.
The 2009 health care effort also began as broadly popular, but as negotiations continued for months, the politics changed and the bill suffered a near-death experience when Democrats lost a Senate seat. By the time Obama signed it in March 2010, the public had turned against it and every Republican in Congress voted against it. The GOP made the law into a rallying cry it in the midterm election, picking up 63 House seats.
Messina said he sees parallels between those talks and Biden’s infrastructure push.
“The biggest thing is that they keep asking for more time. And they’re just running the clock,” he said of Republicans. “If you’re McConnell he’s going to talk for as long as we want to talk, because he’s just trying to be an obstructionist.”
Messina argues Democrats should at least begin the process of bypassing Republicans as talks continue — like they did on the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 bill.
Abandoning bipartisan efforts would require the support of all 50 Democratic senators. And Messina's warning about 2009 on repeat is more targeted at the centrists in his party who have called for GOP outreach, most notably Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
“Just like Obama in 2009, Biden is playing a tough hand,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former top adviser to Obama. “Biden can't move forward on a partisan vote until Manchin is OK with it, just as Obama was stymied by (former Democratic Sen.) Max Baucus' insistence on moving a bipartisan bill through the committee.”
“It's painful because time is a nonrenewable resource,” Pfeiffer said, adding that “there are no easy outs until Manchin and Sinema see the world as it is.”
Democrats are trying to convince the holdouts that McConnell isn't serious about talks by pointing to his recent remarks that “100 percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration.” McConnell later qualified the comment and said his opposition depends on what the administration is proposing.
Pfeiffer believes the bipartisan talks are a fool's errand.
“The idea of 10 Republicans voting for something significant is farcical,” he said.
'A purely political calculation'
McConnell has called for continuing the negotiations.
Last week, Republican negotiators made a counteroffer that included $257 billion in new spending, a far cry from the $1.7 trillion Biden requested. The offer was designed by six Republicans, including two McConnell deputies.
But hours later in an appearance on CNBC, the Kentucky Republican said that it wasn't the final offer, and that “we’re going to keep talking.”
The top GOP negotiator has been more optimistic.
“Sen. Capito reiterated to the president her desire to work together to reach an infrastructure agreement that can pass Congress in a bipartisan way. She also stressed the progress that the Senate has already made,” Kelley Moore, a spokeswoman for Capito, said. “Sen. Capito is encouraged that negotiations have continued.”
Getting 60 Senate votes to advance any agreement would probably require McConnell's sign-off.
Ben Nelson, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska and a moderate who was a key player in the 2009 ACA debate, said Biden should not trust McConnell to negotiate a deal.
“It’ll be a purely political calculation on his part,” Nelson, who is now working as a lawyer, said in an interview. “I don’t expect McConnell to be there in the end.”
“What will dictate that,” Nelson said of McConnell’s calculus, “is less good public policy but mostly what’s the best move in a partisan way to thwart the president’s efforts to get infrastructure legislation passed.”
Nelson said Democrats could peel away 10 Republican senators to break a filibuster on a modest infrastructure package, as long as they can agree on a price tag to craft a bill around. But, he said, that would probably need to be done without McConnell.
Charlie Ellsworth, who worked on health care as Nelson's legislative aide in 2009, said McConnell and his party are taking a “very similar” approach to the infrastructure debate, by “dropping bread crumbs along the way to keep Democrats' attention and try to run out the clock.”
“Every day that we're participating in these so-called negotiations is a day we're not legislating and getting a bill done to help working families and solve climate change,” he said.