The November 2 off-year elections sent a wake-up call to President Joe Biden and Democratic Party leaders in Congress, after the party suffered setbacks in Virginia, New Jersey, and other states. The voters who in 2020 gave the president and his party control of the White House and Congress were tired of bickering and wanted results.
House Democrats got the message. After months of dithering on Capitol Hill, they decided to govern. Since November 2, they have approved a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a $1.9 trillion social welfare and climate justice bill, with a speed that owes more to the urgency of congressional Democrats when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was rolling out a New Deal and Lyndon Johnson was fighting for a Great Society than to their approach during recent Democratic administrations.
Of course, they should have done this—and more—months ago. If they had, Democrats would have won in Virginia, won by more in New Jersey, and avoided the pitfalls the party fell into across the country on November 2. But, at least in the House, they have recognized that it is not too late to avoid those same pitfalls during next year’s midterm elections.
That’s the political reality that explains the roughly parallel votes—228-206 for the physical infrastructure bill on November 5, 220 to 213 for the Build Back Better plan on Friday—by House Democrats who have united and proved they can govern. They’ve backed a plan that, while significantly smaller than what progressives led by Senate Budget Committee chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had hoped for, is consequential in scope and character.
- $555 billion to fight climate change
- $400 billion for free universal preschool
- $200 billion for child tax credits
- $200 billion for four weeks of paid leave
- $165 billion on healthcare spending
The question that remains is whether Senate Democrats can unite as effectively as did their colleagues in the House.
Friday’s House vote saw every Democrat except Maine’s Jared Golden back the ambitious agenda to strengthen the social safety net while fighting climate change. Golden even said he might yet back the version of the measure that comes out of Senate negotiations. That was a reminder that, for all the celebrating Friday, the House vote simply moved the plan to the Senate, where the challenge is still to get West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, and perhaps others on board.
With the Senate divided 50-50, Democrats can’t afford to lose a single vote, and that puts enormous pressure on Biden and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to bring to the process the same sense of urgency that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her leadership team mustered to get the job done.
Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who has displayed more confidence than anyone else on Capitol Hill regarding the Build Back Better measure’s prospects, says many of the details of the bill have already been agreed upon by Democrats in the Senate, including Manchin and Sinema. But key issues remain unsettled, including a number of tax questions and challenges arising from Manchin’s reported aversion to the family and medical leave component of the House bill.
With a mix of optimism and realism, Jayapal said Friday: “This is critical funding for so many of our progressive priorities that will directly improve the lives of working people—fully paid for by making the largest corporations and wealthiest Americans begin to pay their fair share in taxes. And we got it done with the slimmest of majorities and zero Republican votes.
“But we know that this legislation will face unprecedented opposition from corporate PACs, Big Pharma, Wall Street, and fossil fuel companies as it heads to the Senate. That’s why it’s so important we keep our eye on the ball and not let up until the Build Back Better Act is signed into law.”
The key going forward is an inside-outside strategy that sees Biden keep the pressure on Manchin—the two have reportedly spent more than 100 hours in negotiations—and the president and his allies promote the package with an energy that Democrats failed to muster during the summer and early fall. That failure haunted them on November 2, as voters looked to Washington and saw Democrats wrangling with one another rather than governing. Now, there must be a more concerted effort to take this fight to the people, who overwhelmingly support the key components of the legislation, as Sanders noted after the House vote.
The Senator Budget Committee chair explained to his colleagues:
The American people overwhelmingly demand that we ask the wealthy and large corporations to pay their fair share of taxes. That’s what we must do. The American people overwhelmingly demand that we take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry and lower the cost of prescription drugs. That’s what we must do. The American people overwhelmingly demand that we expand Medicare to cover dental, eyeglasses and hearing aids. That’s what we must do. The American people understand that we must act now to combat the existential threat of climate change and transform our energy system away from fossil fuels. That’s what we must do.
He’s right. But this calculus is complicated by the fact that most Americans lack a clear understanding of the popular initiatives that are contained in the Build Back Better agenda, of the fact that it will be paid for by increasing taxes on the rich, and the prospect that it will temper rather than increase inflation. If the details of the plan are communicated to the American people, the momentum that’s begun with the House votes can build, says former CPC cochair Mark Pocan. That will make it easier to pull Manchin and Sinema into the fold, even in the face of corporate lobbying and Republican obstruction.
If the great mass of voters are not brought into the debate, and if what Pocan refers to as a “wildly popular agenda” is not approved by the Senate, it won’t just be a legislative failure for the president and his party. It will be a political failure with enormous consequences in the midterm elections.
But that failure can be averted.
The House votes have given Democrats a sense of what they could run on in 2022. Now, the Senate must make it possible for them to do so.