Anger is growing in Democratic ranks over the failure to get President Joe Biden’s sweeping agenda through this year despite unified control of Congress, with their party already bracing for what could be a brutal Election Day in next November’s midterms.
Major issues they promised to deliver on, such as a bill to overhaul voting laws, stand virtually no chance of becoming law. And the biggest ticket item – the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better plan to dramatically expand the social safety net – is still mired in talks with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, has yet to be drafted into final legislative text or even fully vetted by the Senate parliamentarian.
Despite major accomplishments this year, such as passage of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law and the nearly $2 trillion Covid relief package amid razor thin majorities in both chambers, there’s a palpable sense of frustration among Democrats that much more should have been accomplished – especially given the array of promises they made to their voters and the self-imposed deadlines set by their leaders that they have blown.
Liberals are angry that they agreed to delink the infrastructure package from the Build Back Better bill – which they had for months insisted be passed in tandem before relenting under pressure from their leaders and Biden himself. Democrats of all stripes say they’re alarmed by the actions of GOP-led states to restrict voting access, yet they don’t have the votes in the Senate to overcome a Republican filibuster to enact a federal law. Other Democratic priorities, such as overhauling gun laws, have fallen by the wayside and completely off the agenda.
And all that comes amid this grim reality: Democrats face bleak prospects of holding the House next year and chances that the Senate could flip, too.
“This is why if you have a 50-50 split Senate, you can have one person, or two people, just stop everything and that is why people in our country should know that a 50-50 Senate sucks, and we can’t get things done,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat, told CNN.
Behind closed doors at lunch Thursday, Democratic leaders tried to cool tensions. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer walked his caucus through the rest of the agenda – and made clear that there was still work to be done to finish the Build Back Better bill, a sweeping proposal that would pump money into health care, housing, education, child care and provide universal pre-K.
While Democrats are still hopeful the bill will get done next year, it’s anyone’s guess when that would happen and what form it would take. And as the elections draw nearer, legislating is bound to get only harder.
“Intense,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said when asked to describe the lunch.
The Massachusetts Democrat had for months insisted that both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the social spending package move together – and said that was the agreement among all 50 members of her caucus.
“The agreement among all the Democrats was that we would push those two things forward together,” Warren said. “Obviously, we are having a problem pulling the second half of that across the finish line.”
One major reason why: Democrats don’t yet have the votes to move Biden’s plan.
Manchin has objected to the structure of the bill, arguing that Democrats are hiding the true costs of the bill by relying on temporary programs that will be extended year after year. He wants to keep the price tag at $1.75 trillion, but says that including temporary measures – such as a one-year extension of an expansion of the child tax credit, which expires at month’s end – is not “transparent” to the public about the impact it would have on federal spending.
So, he’s calling on the White House to include a 10-year extension of the program if they want to keep the tax credit, though that would force the President to abandon other priorities in the bill, which they have been negotiating with Democrats for months.
“We have $1.75 to work within. And the only thing I’m saying is whatever – I’m not in charge so whatever they have to choose, they have to choose. It’s not me,” Manchin told CNN.
Manchin added: “I’m saying 10 for 10 (years). If you’re gonna do something, let’s do it, let’s commit to it. I’m committed. I’m not making those decisions.”
And asked on Thursday about how his demands would force Democrats to make wholesale changes to a bill that had been delicately negotiated, Manchin pushed back.
“Everybody has,” Manchin said when asked about the contention that he’s the one seeking major changes to the bill at the eleventh hour.
Democrats say they are stunned at the late asks made by Manchin, who – along with Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema – already have forced their party to drop the price tag of the bill that initially stood at $3.5 trillion and change the contents to meet each of their many priorities.
“Apparently Manchin’s approach to this has changed a lot,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois. “I don’t know where he is today or where he’ll be tomorrow.”
Asked how he views where things stand, Durbin told reporters, “Frustrated and disappointed.” He added: “I can tell you, the level of emotion in our caucus about the child tax credit is very high, very high.”
While Manchin says he supports a child tax credit, he has suggested to the White House moving the plan on a separate legislative track – an idea Democrats are rejecting.
“Anyone who thinks that we should cut that back and tell millions and millions of working parents that they’re not going to be able to raise their kids with dignity – I think that will be a terrible mistake,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, when asked about Manchin.
At the lunch on Thursday, Democrats discussed what their path was to move ahead on both the voting rights bill and the Build Back Better measure.
Yet to get a bill done to overhaul voting laws, there are only two paths: Winning over 10 Republicans who would break a filibuster, which stands no chance of happening, or changing filibuster rules to allow the measure to pass with just 51 votes. But Manchin and Sinema remain steadfast in their opposition to changing the rules, warning it would have grave repercussions if Democrats return to the minority.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Georgia Democrat who faces a tough road to reelection, said it would be “irresponsible” for Democrats to leave for the year without passing a voting rights bill.
“It is a contradiction to say that we must protect the voice of the minority party in the Senate while doing nothing to protect the voices of minority people in the state of Georgia and all across the country,” Warnock told CNN.
Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.