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Democrats 'aim high' legislative approach hasn't worked, so what comes next?

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Chuck Schumer
Chuck Schumer takes questions during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol, on March 25, 2021.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters file

WASHINGTON — If it’s Wednesday ... President Biden returns to “Build Back Better.” ... Nancy Pelosi is running for re-election (but that doesn’t mean she’ll stick around the next Congress). ... Hershel Walker announces raising $5.4 million for the quarter in Georgia Senate. ... Sixty-five percent say they’re more concerned about children falling behind in school than they are the spread of Covid. ... And Nina Turner wants a rematch against Rep. Shontel Brown.

But first: With Biden’s State of the Union coming up on March 1, the pressure is on Democrats to show movement on his legislative agenda and start teeing up some policy wins.

Unfortunately for Biden, things are at a low point right now, particularly in the Senate, and that’s putting more scrutiny on Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s approach.

Schumer wanted to aim high and then try to drag the last holdouts — namely Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. — towards his position, rather than start from their preferred position and sell it to the rest of the caucus as a consensus approach.

On “Build Back Better,” the Senate opened with a $3.5 trillion framework, and the White House and leadership worked to bring Manchin and Sinema around. Then with voting rights, Schumer whipped everyone else in the caucus to support rules changes that many of them opposed until recently, leaving the party’s members, donors and activists a clear lane to pressure Manchin and Sinema.

In some ways, it’s the opposite of Barack Obama’s approach in 2009, when progressive activists complained Democrats were too quick to surrender policy concessions to centrist members for the sake of expediency. Even if turning the screws on them didn’t work, critics argued Democrats might have gotten more if they starting with a bigger opening bid.

If the “aim high” approach had worked, Schumer would look like a genius right now. The problem is that it’s failed to produce results since summer, and some Democrats are pining for the quieter consensus approach.

It’s also produced grassroots Democratic rage at Manchin and Sinema — with Sinema almost guaranteed to receive a primary challenge in 2024. (By the way, ask yourself: Which Senate leader has done a better job protecting his party’s centrist senator: Schumer with Sinema, or Mitch McConnell with Lisa Murkowski?)

There still may be chances to get BBB on track. There are some other opportunities to put wins on the board, like bipartisan legislation on science research and semiconductor manufacturing that the House and Senate are hashing out. A growing group of senators are exploring bipartisan changes to the Electoral Count Act to help prevent future Trump-like attempts to overturn the results.

But the schedule is also getting crowded, and the Senate may not be able to take up anything significant before going through negotiations to fund the government past Feb. 18. If Biden’s agenda fails to produce any more substantive wins, this summer, fall, and winter stretch of “aim high” tactics in the Senate is going to loom large in evaluations of his presidency.

Tweet of the day

Midterm roundup

Progressive activist Nina Turner is making another run for Congress, setting up a rematch with Rep. Shontel Brown, D-Ohio, who beat Turner in a special election primary last year, NBC’s Henry Gomez reports.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced yesterday that she is running for re-election.

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., who is facing a tough re-election fight this year, does not support the Arizona Democratic Party’s decision to censure fellow Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell reports from the Grand Canyon State.

Former President Donald Trump encouraged former State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus to run for the now-open Tennessee 5th District House seat, saying in a statement yesterday she would have his endorsement if she runs.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., took sides in the Ohio GOP Senate primary, endorsing “Hillbilly Elegy” author JD Vance, calling Vance “100% pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment and pro-Trump.” Greene will campaign with Vance on Sunday, per a Vance campaign press release.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., has a new TV ad on OANN attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci and advertising the campaign’s Fauci flip-flops.

Data Download: The number of the day is … 65

That’s the percentage of Americans in the new NBC News poll who say they are more concerned about kids falling behind at school, versus 30 percent who say they are more concerned about the spread of the coronavirus.

Eighty-seven percent of Republicans, 66 percent of independents, 79 percent of dads, 65 percent of moms, 71 percent of whites and 59 percent of Hispanics all agree that kids falling behind outweigh the risks of spreading the virus during in-person school.

But Democrats are far more divided on the issue — 51 percent said they were more concerned about in-person school spreading the virus, while 43 percent said they were more concerned about kids falling behind.

The only other big group with a majority more worried about the in-person spread at schools are Black voters — 52 percent shared that belief, compared to the 40 percent more concerned about kids falling behind.

Other numbers you need to know today

13 percent: The share of congressional staffers who make less than a living wage (pegged at $42,610 for a single adult with no kids in D.C.), per a new Issue One study shared with Roll Call.

$5.4 million: That’s how much Georgia GOP Senate hopeful Herschel Walker says his campaign raised during the fourth quarter of 2021.

$21.5 million: How much money South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott had on hand for his campaign heading into 2022.

29: The number of House Democrats, now that Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper announced his retirement, who are not running for re-election.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

Market-watchers expect the Fed to signal its intent to raise rates in the coming months, with all eyes on its 2 p.m. statement.

Changes to voting laws could be a high-stakes consequence of the Pennsylvania governor’s race, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

Here’s why Democrats breathed a sigh of relief as Vice President Kamala Harris touched down in Wisconsin on Tuesday, NBC News’ Natasha Korecki reports.