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Biden's future — and his party's — depends on whether Democrats can unify

Analysis: Biden carried his agenda to the edge of enactment. Finishing the job depends on whether a handful of lawmakers set aside distrust and differences.
Image: Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks about his domestic agenda at the White House on Oct. 28, 2021.Susan Walsh / AP

WASHINGTON — When he won the Oval Office last year, President Joe Biden promised to govern by consensus and unite the country.

Since then, the country has watched him fail to bring together the disparate wings of his own party around ambitious tax and spending plans that would force the wealthy to shoulder more of the burden for social programs. And that was after abandoning any hope of getting a bipartisan agreement that would demonstrate Washington's ability to come together.

The shift from consensus to partisanship means that when Biden and his aides now mention compromise, they aren’t referring to bipartisanship. They’re talking only about the factions of their own party.

“We’ve spent hours and hours and hours over months and months working on this,” Biden said of the "framework" for a $1.75 trillion “Build Back Better” deal Thursday. “No one got everything they wanted, including me, but that’s what compromise is. That’s consensus. And that’s what I ran on.”

That was clear Thursday, when Biden visited the Capitol for the second time in a month to implore House Democrats to pass a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better budget measure. The latter would raise money from the wealthy to pump money into long-standing liberal priorities, including green-energy incentives, universal early education, public housing and subsidies for elder and child care.

But Biden can't get the bills to his own desk.

To succeed, he needs the warring factions of his own party — chiefly House progressives and two Senate centrists — to set aside their distrust and their remaining differences to enact what most Democrats still see as genuinely historic investments in climate and social policy.

The infighting isn't helping Democrats politically — it undercuts Biden's narrative and gives fodder to the party's critics — and it threatens to leave a bittersweet taste even if the bills become law.

Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had hoped the big announcement of an outline and the president's personal lobbying on Capitol Hill would persuade liberals to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which House progressives have held hostage in order to try to gain leverage on the social spending measure.

It should not be hard for a Democratic president, a Democratic House speaker and a Democratic Senate majority leader to pass an expansion of the social safety net by taxing the rich. The Build Back Better plan is bread-and-butter party orthodoxy, and what lawmakers do seem to agree on is spending about $3 trillion over the next decade among infrastructure, climate and social programs.

Biden didn't help by dragging his feet on negotiating — Democratic allies begged him to engage more aggressively for months — or by refusing to identify his own priorities when it became clear that creating a framework required a major triage operation.

"The longer it takes, the messier it looks," Robert Gibbs, a former White House press secretary under President Barack Obama, told NBC's Craig Melvin.

But there's no question that Biden's diplomacy between the factions has moved the discussion forward significantly in the last couple of weeks.

Progressives were always going to have to give up a lot to get some of their priorities, and the framework is about a quarter of the size they sought at one point. It has been stripped of many of the provisions they saw as high priorities. On the Senate side, moderates came to the table and negotiated in enough detail to allow the framework to start taking shape as actual legislation.

The Build Back Better plan is now half the size of Biden's original $3.5 trillion proposal, the result of slow and tortuous negotiations with centrist Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. It doesn't include paid family leave, lower prescription drug prices or Medicare coverage for vision and dental services.

Liberals are angry about that. They wanted more. And they refused Thursday — for the second time in a month — to vote for the infrastructure bill. Their reasoning is that they don't trust moderates in the House and Senate to support the social spending bill if the infrastructure measure has already become law. It is further along in the legislative process, having passed the Senate already, and only needs an affirmative House vote to go to Biden's desk.

"The best way to secure the gains and the promises made today is to take a bit more time to see the actual bill and to make sure Manchin and Sinema say 'yes,'" Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said of the framework deal Biden announced.

In other words, progressives plan to hold out until the ink is dry on a plan that Biden negotiated with Manchin and Sinema. While they did not commit to vote for anything, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said in a statement Thursday that they are "overwhelmingly" supportive of the framework.

Still, a faction of them told Pelosi on Thursday that they wouldn't vote for infrastructure until there is a hard deal with the Senate to pass the social spending bill, according to one of the recalcitrant lawmakers. Estimates of the rebel group range from about two dozen to more than three dozen. That forced Pelosi to abandon hopes of a vote on infrastructure this week.

It should not have been a surprise to anyone, least of all Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress, that the two centrists would dictate the terms of any agreement. Each of them holds an effective veto on the Build Back Better plan because the Senate is split 50-50 and Republicans have not engaged in, or been invited to engage in, negotiations. All of them will vote against it.

The vast majority of Democrats in the House and Senate would gladly vote for both bills, in any order, and claim a major victory for the American public and their party. But Biden, Pelosi and Schumer don't have the juice to take a heavier hand with the centrists or the progressives.

Manchin doesn't need party leaders to help him win re-election in a state that gave Biden less than 30 percent of its votes in 2020. Sinema's political calculus is different in Arizona, where Biden won by about 10,000 votes, but she's not going to have any trouble raising money — the key election assistance national party leaders can still help with — and she's not on the ballot until 2024.

Similarly, House progressives aren't reliant on Pelosi to win re-election. For many of them, their stand is giving them a bigger national platform. Anyone who folds risks being seen as an apostate by progressive activists. And they primarily hail from politically safe districts where the only fear is a primary challenge from their left flank.

There are other factors at play, but they all point to the same conclusion: the only tool Biden, Schumer and Pelosi have is an appeal to the collective interests of the party.

It may ultimately provide enough leverage to muscle both bills through Congress, but the repeated use of the tool is revealing the limits of its power and exposing the party's lack of unified purpose.

Now, a president who campaigned on bringing the whole country together will be lucky if he can demonstrate the ability to unify half of it.

To do that, he needs his fellow Democrats to put aside their policy differences, petty grievances and personal ambitions long enough to deliver on their shared agenda.