Biden’s signature reforms jeopardised by Democratic infighting

Threat of revolt delays key vote on $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package

US president Joe Biden had been struggling for weeks to unite the restive, opposing factions of the Democratic party around his multitrillion-dollar domestic agenda. But on Thursday the difficulty of that task became clearer than ever.

Despite hours of heated negotiations in the US Capitol, a clutch of White House officials and top Democratic lawmakers failed to seal a compromise to advance Mr Biden's signature legislative plans, which have been left in a dangerous limbo.

The threat of a progressive revolt forced Nancy Pelosi, the veteran House Democratic speaker, to delay a key vote on a $1.2 trillion (€1 trillion) bipartisan infrastructure package.

Meanwhile, Mr Biden’s $3.5 trillion (€3 trillion) social safety net and climate change bill, which would be financed by tax increases on the wealthy and large corporations, remains mired in doubt because a group of moderate Democrats object to its size and some key details.

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The two bills combined are seen by Mr Biden's supporters as a once-in-a-generation chance to bolster the economy and improve American livelihoods. But the intraparty stand-off has echoes of past Democratic presidents' fraught relationships with Congress in their first years in office, as well as previous battles between Republican leaders and the conservative Tea Party movement.

Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, the centrist Democratic think-tank, said: "I have a lot of faith in the speaker and the president and the majority leader. But boy it is hard, and Nancy Pelosi is walking a tightrope way up there and the wind is howling."

Some Democrats still see scope for compromise but thus far neither progressives nor moderates have signalled much willingness to bend on their core principles.

Deep infighting

Mr Biden was desperately trying to avoid being stymied by divisions within his party, but is instead facing problems akin to those that beset Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and even Jimmy Carter on Capitol Hill in the early stages of their administrations.

When Mr Biden was sworn in just over eight months ago, Democrats' unified control of the White House, Senate and House of Representatives was cause for optimism for a party looking to recover from four years of Donald Trump.

"There are moments when you have a united government like this and there is a sense of possibility that comes from that," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of political history at Princeton University. "But what results is .. really deep infighting where every part of a party wants its share of the moment."

The delay in the vote on the infrastructure bill – which Pelosi was determined to hold until the very last minute – was caused by opposition among leftwing House Democrats, whose power and influence over the party has been steadily growing in recent years.

The group, led by Pramila Jayapal, a lawmaker from Washington state, is insisting on guarantees that the larger $3.5 trillion social safety net and climate package can make it through the Senate. That cannot happen unless moderate Democrats including Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona give their green light, which they have so far resisted.

Ro Khanna, a progressive Democratic House member from California, said a "couple of holdouts" were jeopardising the goal of creating "the biggest public social investment since the Great Society [of the 1960s]

Parallels

The troubles of Biden and Democratic leaders in shepherding rank-and-file lawmakers towards a deal in some respects recall the torments of previous Republican congressional leaders in dealing with the Tea Party.

"What we faced in 2013, when I was in House leadership, with the shutdown, was remarkably similar to where we are now, with a rising Freedom Caucus that was intent on sticking it to its leadership if it could not get exactly what it wanted," said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who was a senior adviser to then House majority leader Eric Cantor.

Some political observers dismiss those parallels. “The Tea Party was willing to bring the processes of government to a halt. I’m not convinced that’s what the progressives are ready to do,” said Mr Zelizer.

After the vote delay late on Thursday, White House officials and Democrats expressed some optimism that the rifts could be patched up.

"In the next few days, there's going to have to be recognition that, OK, they have to play nice," said Meghan Pennington, a former Democratic aide in the Senate now at consultancy Hamilton Place Strategies.

“Just saying you’re going to vote No is at some point going to be unproductive, because it would be the progressives standing in the way of president Biden being able to move a really important package to his presidency and to our midterm elections.”

Mr Khanna said progressives were prepared for more compromises. “The contours of a deal could come if we front-load a lot of the benefits and reduce the number of years and that could bring the cost down. We have to get this done,” he said.

But Tré Easton, a former Senate staffer at Battle Born Collective, a progressive group, warned that Biden and his party would be looking at "mutually assured destruction" if the talks fail.

“Democrats have a once-in-a-generation opportunity here, and it is on them to make the absolute most of it. Progressives in Congress know that, I would argue that a lot more than just progressives in Congress know that. I think the vast majority of Democrats in Congress understand that, and president Biden understands that,” he said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021