WASHINGTON — A shocking defeat in Virginia sent chills through Capitol Hill Democrats on Tuesday and Wednesday, sparking recriminations between factions and adding urgency to their work on President Joe Biden's agenda.
"We have been circling the landing for a long time. Now, it's time to stick the landing," Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a Biden friend and ally, said Wednesday on MSNBC. "We need to pass and send to his desk from the Congress a Build Back Better bill and an infrastructure bill."
A senior congressional aide said the party will "wait to see if anyone has cold feet" on the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better and $550 billion infrastructure packages, and described the poor results as a referendum on Democrats' failure to deliver on the agenda that got them elected.
"To me, it argues strongly for people just passing the damn bills, and that will be what I say to colleagues in both the Congressional Progressive Caucus and New Democrat Coalition," the aide said. "Not interested in blame game but we just really have to pass things. If we don’t, why would people vote for us?"
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, asked Wednesday if the Virginia gubernatorial defeat changes the agenda of the House, replied: "No."
Anxiety ran high after Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost the race for governor in Virginia and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, remained locked in an unexpectedly close race into the morning.
Moderates pointed the finger at progressives for blocking a vote on the infrastructure bill, which has passed the Senate and has been held up in the House until a deal is reached on the social policy bill.
"They were already really emboldened. They were frustrated by inaction on bipartisan infrastructure before last night," said Kristen Hawn, a former senior aide to the moderate House Blue Dog Coalition. "Even more so now."
But progressives blamed centrists such as Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., for trying to pare back the most popular pieces of Biden's proposals, and argued that both bills could have passed by now if the negotiations didn't drag out.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said that passing the Build Back Better legislation would convey to voters what Democrats want to do for parents and families, countering the message of Virginia's new governor-elect Glenn Youngkin.
"Youngkin appealed to parents and education. I think we have the formula to appeal to parents even more by passing a bill that provides child care, that provides pre-K, that provides jobs," Jayapal said on MSNBC. "My message now is: Let's get these two bills done ... We will then really be able to appeal to families and say we do understand your economic pain."
But one thing Democrats of all stripes agreed on: simply running against Trump is not enough.
"We can never run on just anti-Trump," Jayapal said. "We have to run on the things we do."
Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher said the election result should "put a sense of urgency and a fire under" the goal of passing Biden's agenda.
"If you look at how upset Americans broadly are about what they see as a dysfunction in Washington, and if you're a rational Democrat, you have to understand we've got to do something, we got to start delivering for the people," he said.
Belcher said Biden's job approval rating "would have been higher" if Congress had acted on his agenda before Tuesday and helped Democratic candidates across the country.
"I think the whole feeling about Democrats and getting things done would have been better," he said.
Others in the party said the Virginia election came at a low point for Biden's approval rating and legislative inaction, but added that the landscape would be different by next year's midterm contest.
"We'll have bills by Thanksgiving and spend the next year in the districts at ribbon cuttings," a senior congressional Democratic aide said.