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For Democrats in Congress, opposing forces leave Biden's agenda in the balance

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: Joe Biden
President Joe Biden walks off after speaking about a bombing at the Kabul airport that killed at least 13 U.S. service members, from the East Room of the White House, on Aug. 26, 2021.Evan Vucci / AP

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda is caught between two countervailing forces.

One, the agenda is Too Big to Fail — that is, Democrats have so much riding on the infrastructure and reconciliation packages that they’ll eventually pass them, no matter the legislative drama or ideological differences.

Two, the party is simply Too Divided to Pass — with the thinnest of majorities, Democrats are just too divided (ideologically, geographically and procedurally) to overcome a single defection in Senate and just a handful of defections in the House.

And that’s due to a worse-than-expected showing in the 2020 elections, where Democrats failed to defeat Susan Collins in Maine, Thom Tillis in North Carolina and Joni Ernst in Iowa, and where they lost House seats despite Biden’s presidential win.

Why it’s Too Big to Fail

  • Moderates in the Senate are deeply invested in the bipartisan infrastructure deal. They wrote it, it’s chock-full of items they want for their states, and they’re eager to show that old-fashioned deal-making is still alive in Washington.
  • Progressives are well aware the reconciliation bill may be their last chance to pass large-scale spending for years, perhaps even a generation, given GOP advantages in the House and Senate. Even a scaled-down bill would mean significant investments in health care, education, climate, housing and more.
  • Both sides have a strong interest in propping up Biden ahead of the midterms. Not passing either bill could crater his presidency and take them down with it. They need something to sell in a midterm, and nobody looks good when the party’s leader’s agenda is imploding and his approval ratings follow. As Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., put it early on: “We’re going to make Joe Biden successful.”

Why it’s Too Divided to Pass

  • There’s deep distrust between centrist members and progressives, as well as between the House and Senate — neither of which trusts the other to support their favored legislation. This has led to all sorts of procedural tinkering. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had to pledge to pass both bills together ahead of the Senate infrastructure vote, then a centrist rebellion forced her to pledge a Sept. 27th date for a vote on the bill. Since finishing a bill is unlikely by then, the whole “two-track” deal is now teetering on the edge of collapse with progressives threatening to vote it down.
  • Progressives are wary that their colleagues are trying to force the infrastructure bill through and either kill or declaw the reconciliation bill and are renewing threats to vote against the former without a deal on the latter. The centrists are desperate to show that the bills are not “linked” and that they aren’t being bullied into supporting anything they don’t want to. Both sides have been digging in this week.
  • The substantive divides over the reconciliation bill are growing: A group of centrist House members voted against the leadership’s drug pricing reforms last week; plans to tax the rich, especially the biggest billionaires, are running into major opposition; and Manchin, who will play a key role in the climate portion, is dumping on environmentalists' top priorities, especially a plan to punish and reward utilities based on how quickly they switch to renewable energy. Far more ominously, he’s starting to question the urgency of passing a bill at all, citing inflation concerns.
  • All of this gets much, much, much harder if moderates force the price tag down by a trillion or two. So far, it’s been the centrists causing the most trouble for leadership, but at some point if a bill becomes watered down enough, progressives will start drawing red lines of their own. The potential for a spiral of recriminations is high. There needs to be a way for both sides to save face.

Biden’s day at the U.N.

At 10:00 a.m. ET, Biden addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York. At noon, he holds a bilateral meeting in the Big Apple with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and then he meets with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson back at the White House at 3:55 p.m. ET.

Biden’s appearance on the world stage comes at an inopportune time for the president — after the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, after the admission of a U.S. drone strike that killed innocent civilians, and after France pulled its U.S. ambassadors due to a submarine-deal dispute.

Tweet of the day

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

More than 20,000: The number of Haitian migrants gathering in Colombia for a possible migration to America.

31 percent: The portion of U.S. adults who say they get news regularly from Facebook, per Pew.

94 percent: The efficacy that Johnson & Johnson says its clinical trial found for two doses of its Covid vaccine.

42,330,282: The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 207,873 more since Monday morning.)

680,293: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far, per the most recent data from NBC News. (That’s 2,393 more since Monday morning.)

386,237,881: The number of vaccine doses administered in the U.S., per the CDC. (That’s 651,869 more since Friday morning.)

54.7 percent: The share of all Americans who are fully vaccinated, per the CDC.

65.9 percent: The share of all U.S. adults at least 18 years of age who are fully vaccinated, per CDC

Virginia governor's race

With six weeks to go, Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates are gearing up for the sprint to the finish line — as of today, Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe has just shy of $2 million of ads booked through Election Day, compared with $1.2 million for Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin.

McAuliffe has been hammering ads on the pandemic and education in recent days, with Youngkin dropping a handful of new advertisements on similar issues.

One of Youngkin’s new spots is focused on education, with a Loudon County teacher arguing that the Republican will bring “real leadership” to the state’s education system; one is targeting Hampton Roads with his plan for the area; another one is pushing back on attacks about his approach to vaccines (after a lengthy spat between the two candidates on the issue during last week’s debate), where doctors attack McAuliffe’s “smear campaign” on vaccines and celebrate how he’s running a TV ad “encouraging Virginians” to get the shot; and a brand-new, minute-long spot centers on a police officer injured in the line of duty in 1984 who says she fears McAuliffe would release violent criminals.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s party won Monday’s election but they do not appear to have secured a majority of the seats in parliament.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s party won big in their parliamentary elections, leading to fraud allegations by its rivals.

A member of the CIA director’s team may be suffering from so-called Havana Syndrome after a trip to India.

Democrats are set to introduce new proposals aimed at limiting the power of the presidency in response to their concerns about former President Donald Trump’s conduct.

A new excerpt from the forthcoming book “Peril” by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa includes a memo that Trump’s legal team used in the hopes of getting then-Vice President Mike Pence to help him overturn the election.

A Texas doctor revealed he performed an abortion in violation of the state’s new, strict limits, leading to a lawsuit.