Armageddoning with the Democratic Coalition

WASHINGTON, DC June 24, 2021: US President Joe Biden and United States Senators following a meeting regarding infrastructure negations at the White House on June 24, 2021. Biden invited Republican and Democratic se... WASHINGTON, DC June 24, 2021: US President Joe Biden and United States Senators following a meeting regarding infrastructure negations at the White House on June 24, 2021. Biden invited Republican and Democratic senators to discuss the infrastructure plan. The meeting included: Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), and Senator Mark Warner (D-VA). (Photo by Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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September 20, 2021 9:33 a.m.

Presidents usually get their first year big legislative initiatives. Maybe not in total. Maybe not entirely as they’d wished. But certainly most of the time. But there’s no question the President Fiscal/Infrastructure/Climate agenda is facing some serious headwinds. The establishment DC outlets are practically giddy with each new threat from the Senate and House “moderates” to torch the whole agenda. Joe Manchin is back to his demand for a “strategic pause” to delay consideration into a reconciliation package – a gambit that is basically guaranteed to bring the whole program down in flames. Kyrsten Sinema meanwhile, allegedly, threatened in a conversation with the President that she’ll vote against reconciliation if her bipartisan mini-bill doesn’t get a successful vote this month. So she has to get her bird in hand and then she’ll decide if anyone else gets hers.

I saw another columnist wrote that he has shifted his view from thinking that Joe Manchin was trying to help Biden succeed with a less Bernie-ite agenda to simply thinking Manchin is trying to crater Biden’s whole agenda and perhaps his whole presidency. I’m both more and less pessimistic than this because I don’t think Manchin is terribly ideological or strategic (in the sense of having such a grand plan). The best explanation I can see of his actions is that he’s driven by the establishment conventional wisdom of the moment. And that CW has turned in a major way against the President over the last two months.

Of course, this doesn’t even get into the debt limit vote, a vote on a democracy protection bill, immigration reforms and a lot else. Pretty much all of that appears up in the air and likely to be decided over the next six weeks.

I wish I could suggest the best strategy for pulling this all together. But this is just a classic legislative and coalitional challenge and one which I don’t have any good idea how to resolve because I don’t have the information one needs. Only the President and his very top advisors and top congressional leaders do. I hope they make some good decisions.

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Two things seem clear to me.

The first is that Biden, Pelosi and Schumer simply can’t accept a situation in which a handful of senators and reps veto most of the party’s agenda and still get the infrastructure mini-bill they mostly negotiated with Republicans. That’s what DC’s permanent political class seems to want right now. What option do they have? What lever can they pull? The option is to say no and take the big risk that nothing will happen at all. No mini-bill, no reconciliation package, nothing. That would be a disaster. But the mini-bill and nothing else would be almost as bad and would essentially blow up the Democratic party coalition.

The big risk here is that I think a lot of the self-styled “moderates” are ready to walk away from the whole thing. Or at least more ready than a lot of progressives and the actual center of the party. That’s the essence of their power right now. Absent a real willingness on the part of the White House and leadership to see the whole thing go down in flames they’ll keep getting lead around by the whims and fancies of these two senators.

Democrats only have 50 Senate votes. That means the desires and goals of a Manchin and Sinema are going to have outsized influence. That’s just reality. Imagining the President can just lower the boom on people is just fantasy and bad history. Lyndon Johnson had 68 votes in the Senate. That’s why he was so powerful — not because he invaded people’s personal space. But there’s a difference between outsized influence and basically running the party. Their wings are going to have to be clipped if the party’s agenda has any hope. Not dominated, forced to toe the party line. But the current situation is untenable.

The other point is that the reconciliation bill, if it passes, is going to be significantly smaller than Democrats were hoping. That’s not the end of the world. You don’t always get everything you want. Things get negotiated. But at least on its face that’s not what the moderates are pushing for right now. They appear to want a veto over the whole thing – decoupling the two bills and pushing reconciliation into next year. Those two things mean very clearly the bigger bill will never happen. If that’s a bargaining position and there’s a discussion to be had over say a $2.5 trillion or $3 trillion deal that’s what they should be negotiating. If not, it really seems like the only path forward is for the whole thing to blow up and nothing happen at all.

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