Senator Bernie Sanders charged out of a tunnel below the US Capitol building this week and straight into a gaggle of reporters searching for any clues on the biggest mystery in Washington — the fate of the Democrats’ stalled legislative agenda.
The Vermont progressive, who has been in the middle of months of negotiations, usually plows right through these media stakeouts. But on Tuesday, he stopped, pulled off his blue surgical mask, and declared it was time for Democrats to finish work on their sprawling $1.75 trillion social spending and climate change bill even as he called for “making it stronger” by expanding Medicare and making sure “the wealthiest people in this country start paying their fair share of taxes.”
To get to the bottom of the chaos in Washington — the public posturing, backroom maneuvering, and heightened political tension — it helps to go underground, into the warren of tunnels connecting the Capitol to lawmakers’ office buildings. It’s where senators chat as they head to cast votes and House members hold private meetings to plot strategy. But as Democrats have struggled to use their razor-thin congressional majority to enact President Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda, that subterranean level has seemed like the first of Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell — the one called limbo.
And that tense legislative limbo already is causing political problems for Democrats.
It has contributed to a sharp decline in Biden’s approval ratings and sent him off last week to meetings with world leaders in Europe lacking the major accomplishments he hoped to tout. The lack of action on Capitol Hill also is viewed as contributing to Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s defeat Tuesday in the gubernatorial race in Virginia and a surprisingly narrow win by New Jersey incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy in the election there.
“The message was a big middle finger from the electorate to the Democrats,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “The environment [for Democrats] is bad, and if it doesn’t get better, we might have a replay ... on a much larger scale next November.”
If they pass both bills and are able to trumpet the benefits to the American people — things like free preschool, money to pay for child care, and repairs to roads and bridges — Democrats hope that voters will forget how messy the legislative process has been and focus on what it produced.
“My constituents that I talk to, and all the families, whether you are from a red state or a blue state, care about lowering the cost of health care, they care about getting back to work, they care about having child care and care for their parents,” said Representative Katherine Clark, the Melrose Democrat who serves as assistant House speaker. “What they don’t care about is a Beltway back and forth.”
“They’re looking for results and that’s what we’re going to deliver,” said Clark, who has trekked to the White House three times in recent weeks for negotiating sessions with Biden. “There is no margin for error with our majorities, but there is also no room for failure.”
The road has not been easy. Each two steps forward the past few months have seemingly been followed by at least one step back. Developments this week illustrated that.
As Democrats raced to finish the $1.75 trillion bill so they could vote on it this week, Manchin held a news conference on Monday calling for the process to slow down. After Democrats announced on Tuesday they had a deal on a major sticking point — lowering prescription drug prices — five House moderates warned Speaker Nancy Pelosi they would not vote on the bill unless they had more time to review the text and the still pending cost estimates. That’s enough votes to sink the legislation.
And on Wednesday, just days after congressional and White House negotiators took four weeks of paid family leave for Americans out of the bill because of Manchin’s objection, Pelosi said she was putting it back in.
“The sausage-making is more public than usual, but the give and take is what you have in the legislative process,” Representative Zoe Lofgren, a veteran Democrat from California, said as she rushed with an open cup of coffee down a basement hallway to a meeting of House Democrats Tuesday morning.
Republicans have branded all the legislative machinations as a sign of “Democrats in disarray” and have been almost gleeful watching from the sidelines.
“I would observe this seems to be quite a challenging exercise for them. I’m glad it is,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said of the $1.75 trillion legislation. “This is a bill America does not want and does not need.”
Still, Democrats were able to strike a bipartisan infrastructure deal this summer and have been making progress on the massive social spending and climate change bill, which they are considering through a complex budget reconciliation process because Senate Republicans otherwise would block it.
“It was always going to be hard to make this work when we had the thinnest possible majority and a group of Democrats who do not march in lockstep,” Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said before referring to the renowned humorist from her native Oklahoma. “Remember Will Rogers’s old comment: ‘I don’t belong to an organized political party, I’m a Democrat.’ He was a wise Okie.”
Democrats have blown past several self-imposed deadlines, giving the impression of legislative wheels spinning in the mud rather than gaining traction. The sense of urgency has increased following Tuesday’s election results.
Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University who studies Congress, said unified party control of Washington never goes as smoothly as expected, particularly with narrow majorities. It’s also been more difficult for Democrats to coalesce around the wide array of initiatives they’re proposing, compared with Republicans who were more in sync on tax cuts when they had unified control during Donald Trump’s first two years as president, she said.
Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said he’s not worried that the Republican message of Democrats being unable to govern will resonate in the midterm elections — unless “we can’t close the deal.”
“If we do, and the benefits of this legislation are apparent to the American people,” he said, “then that’s just the legislative process.”
Original story HERE