WASHINGTON — The power's out for Democratic leaders.
Whether or not President Joe Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer end up passing most of the party's sweeping $4 trillion domestic agenda, their struggles have revealed the limits of their juice.
Pelosi, D-Calif., the best vote-wrangler of her era, watched helplessly for most of the week — and for several months — as acrimony between moderates and progressives grew and the chances of swiftly delivering everything for Biden shrank. Respected and feared for so many years, she couldn't break the impasse with pleas, threats or the unique brand of shuttle diplomacy that originally cemented her reputation as a master legislator.
After party leaders spent weeks ripping moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., for failing to outline a counterproposal to the White House's $3.5 trillion expansion of the social safety net, it was revealed Thursday that Schumer, D-N.Y., had signed a document detailing Manchin's positions — including a $1.5 trillion bottom line — in July. That was news to progressives who had been repeating the line that Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have been negotiating in bad faith because they wouldn't tell party leaders what they wanted.
And Biden found himself in the unusual position of subtly siding with a progressive cohort threatening to kill his infrastructure bill. He didn't make an appearance on Capitol Hill this week to push the $500 billion-plus infrastructure measure until Friday after the vote was scrapped, and had not put any public pressure on progressives to back down.
Whether out of principle or simple acknowledgment of political reality, his aides are echoing the argument that his infrastructure bill can't be enacted without agreement on the safety-net expansion.
"What he's been spending his time on over the last couple of days is that — having conversations with Sen. Manchin, Sen. Sinema and others who have been very vocal about the fact that they're not quite there yet," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. "And his objective is to try to get them there because that's what members of the Progressive Caucus are looking for in order to support an infrastructure bill, many components of which they support."
Pelosi, too, sided with the much larger progressive contingent over moderates.
She delayed a planned vote on infrastructure Thursday because progressives said they would sink it, even though they preferred not to be pushed into a position to put up "no" votes on one of the key pieces of Biden's agenda.
"Nobody wants to have a vote that fails," Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a leader in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Thursday.
Beyond the substance, and despite Biden's avowed commitment to civility, party leaders have not been able to tamp down vituperative sniping between the factions. During a House Democratic Caucus meeting this week, Pelosi asked her colleagues to project unity and stop staking out hard-line positions in public.
That didn't work.
After Manchin said Wednesday that the $3.5 trillion safety-net bill amounted to "fiscal insanity," Omar fired back.
"Inaction is insanity," she told reporters on the Capitol steps Thursday. "Not willing to negotiate in good faith is insanity. Not fighting to have the critical investments that are needed is insanity. Trying to kill your party's agenda is insanity."
Of course, the best way for Biden, Schumer and Pelosi to bring their party together is to come up with a legislative solution that is satisfactory — if not pleasing — to both sides. As of late Thursday night, Manchin was holding firm to his $1.5 trillion offer, and progressives were unwilling to free the infrastructure bill.
That's where the two sides were in July.
In the past, party leaders had enough influence over their members to ensure passage of the major items on a president's agenda. But the dynamics of legislative politics have changed in a way that reflects the rancor of electoral politics — even within the parties.
Moreover, Biden has been weakened by sagging poll numbers, Pelosi has promised that this will be her last term as speaker — reducing the fear of repercussions for crossing her — and the revelation of Schumer's long-secret acknowledgment of Manchin's position has left lawmakers wondering what he was thinking.
“Leader Schumer never agreed to any of the conditions Sen. Manchin laid out; he merely acknowledged where Sen. Manchin was on the subject at the time," a Schumer spokesperson told Politico. "Sen. Manchin did not rule out voting for a reconciliation bill that exceeded the ideas he outlined, and Leader Schumer made clear that he would work to convince Sen. Manchin to support a final reconciliation bill — as he has been doing for weeks.”
Asked about Manchin's bottom line, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said it was dead on arrival in the House.
"I don't think that would go anywhere," she said.
If Democrats hope to salvage Biden's agenda, his presidency and their majorities in Congress, they'll have to figure out where they are going. And they'll have to do it without the kind of power that leaders are accustomed to wielding.