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Honeymoon over? Afghanistan chaos comes at a critical moment for Biden's agenda

The president needs all the political capital he can muster in the coming weeks to pass his ambitious agenda with thin Democratic majorities.
Some insiders say relations between Biden and Democrats are entering a new phase.Chandan Khanna / AFP via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s honeymoon with congressional Democrats appeared to reach an abrupt halt last week when a number of his allies on Capitol Hill began pummeling his execution of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, promising investigations.

It’s a precarious moment for Biden, who needs to save his political capital to pass his ambitious agenda with thin Democratic majorities. House leaders are battling dissent among moderate lawmakers skeptical of the dual-track strategy to approve a $550 billion infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion package to expand the social safety net and raise taxes on the wealthy.

Some insiders see a new phase for relations between Biden and Democrats.

“The relationship has certainly hit a rough spot,” said Jim Manley, who was an aide to former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “On a whole host of issues, he’s had a pretty good run since becoming president. Now I think the relationship is going to get a little trickier from here on out.”

He said he was “surprised by the tough tone” that key Democratic committee chairs like Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York and Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey took on Afghanistan, adding that they appear determined to conduct “rigorous” oversight of Biden, their fellow Democrat.

The larger political impact of the chaos in Afghanistan is unclear. Polls taken during the chaos found that Americans still prefer withdrawing over remaining. But the situation has enveloped the White House in a near-term crisis that may limit its persuasive powers over Democratic lawmakers.

An NBC News poll released Sunday found that Biden's job approval rating is 49 percent, while 48 percent of U.S. adults disapprove. That is down from April, when Biden drew 53 percent approval and 39 percent disapproval.

Dan Pfeiffer, who was a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama, said he doesn’t believe the situation will harm Biden’s agenda, but he said the concern is understandable.

“Democrats have so little margin of error in Congress that even a little bit of turbulence is concerning, and the instinct for self-sabotage in centrist Democrats is always prevalent,” he said.

Pfeiffer said Biden’s popularity will have an impact on Democrats down the ballot in the congressional elections next year, giving them an incentive to strengthen him and his presidency.

“From the perspective of raw politics, the urgency to quickly pass the Biden legislative agenda is increased by recent events. Congressional Democrats need a strong Biden to have any chance of holding the majorities,” he said. “If the president takes a political hit from what's happening in Afghanistan, passing very popular, impactful legislation is the best way to ensure that blip is temporary.”

The Senate has passed a $550 billion infrastructure bill on a vote of 69-30. The House is set to return Monday and kick off the process of advancing the bill and the separate $3.5 trillion budget resolution. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said the infrastructure legislation won’t get a vote until the Senate passes the multitrillion-dollar bill, which has sparked dissent from moderates.

And those moderates are more likely to stick with Biden if their voters support him.

“I am curious to figure out how much this is actually going to hurt President Biden. It’s probably a moving target for members,” Kristen Hawn, a former Democratic aide for the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, said of the Afghanistan conundrum. “I don’t think we’ll know that immediately. This is still playing out.

“I do think that Democratic allies of the president want to deliver a win for him,” she said. “The bipartisan bill would be a very big win for the president at a very troubling time right now. There would be an incentive there to pass something, have it signed into law. Particularly with infrastructure, there are real-world impacts. People can see it.”

A group of centrists, including Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., is pushing for a swift vote on the infrastructure bill before the House proceeds to the budget bill. But Pelosi has said infrastructure doesn’t have the votes to pass unless it is linked to the larger package, which is a top priority for progressive lawmakers.

Pelosi needs all the help she can get from Biden to get most reluctant Democrats to back her plan.

“It’ll be interesting to see if Democrats, especially in the House, think he is weakened and they try to jam him on infrastructure and reconciliation,” Manley said.

“Presidents and their staff as a general rule like to preserve their political capital for tough times. And they’ve done a good job of doing that so far,” he said. “But based on how difficult this is, they’re going to have to start calling in some chits.”