Among the many ways in which Joe Biden offered himself as a more attractive alternative to Donald Trump was the Democrat's claim that he could make Washington work again. Even a veteran parliamentary deal-maker like Biden knew well how little room there was for consensus politics in today's polarised America, but after the stasis of the Trump years Biden's legislative record was one of his strongest cards. Now, with his signature domestic policy looking increasingly imperilled, failure on the legislative agenda threatens to derail his administration.
The Build Back Better Bill is a massive piece of legislation that touches on many of the key parts of the Democrats' domestic agenda, ranging from climate action and childcare to education and housing. In the beginning its headline spending figure totalled $3.5 trillion over the next decade. In the negotiations required to get it through the House, that was trimmed to $1.7 trillion, but the importance of the package to Biden and to influential progressives in his party is hard to overstate. The party leadership had hoped to get it through the Senate by Christmas, but that plan appears to have been torpedoed by the announcement of Joe Manchin, the pivotal Democratic senator from West Virginia, that he cannot support it. He says the Bill could raise inflation and increase America's debt load; his critics say he is merely siding with the coal industry, which has a big presence in his state. Parts of the legislation had already been re-written to accommodate the concerns of the conservative Democrat, and without his support it cannot pass.
Biden therefore has little choice but to persist. But the dangers are clear: dilute the text too much and Biden will alienate large swathes of his own party, dig in so much that the Bill dies and he will have suffered a huge legislative defeat – one that would be difficult to shake off before next year’s midterms. Biden’s low approval ratings suggest those elections could result in a drubbing for Democrats. Failure to meet their most important legislative goal would guarantee as much.