Democrats at a Crossroad

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

This is crunch time for Democrats. The party’s congressional leaders must make several crucial decisions in the next few weeks, deciding what parts of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda to push, how to do so (with or without Republican support), and how to placate the disparate wings of their own party.

Three immediate questions confront Democrats. First, how long to continue discussions with Republicans regarding bipartisan support for an infrastructure bill? Second, how fast to move, given the legislative calendar? Third, what to do about the Senator Joe Manchin problem?

The president desires — almost desperately — bipartisan cooperation with Republicans. No one should find this surprising, given Joe Biden’s background. He spent decades in the Senate, at a time — at least in his early years as a senator — when comity ruled. Biden witnessed and participated in forging numerous compromises with members across the aisle. As President Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden drew on his past as a dealmaker in the Senate to persuade a few Republican senators to support Obama’s economic stimulus bill, making its passage bipartisan.

No doubt, Biden entered talks on an infrastructure package with West Virginia Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito sincerely hoping to reach an agreement. But, those talks broke down this week as the two sides remain hundreds of billions of dollars apart and disagree over how to pay for infrastructure improvements. If Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on an infrastructure plan — given that every senator or representative should want a new bridge or road in his or her district — then the prospects of cooperation on anything else approach zero.

Gaining Republican support for anything proposed by Democrats was always a long shot for Biden. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell telegraphed early his intention to continue his sordid career as the king of obstruction. “One hundred percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration,” the Kentuckian said. Another indication that bipartisanship is chimerical came when Republicans in the Senate refused to end a filibuster against creating a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection. If Republicans cannot agree with Democrats to investigate a riotous mob that threatened their own safety, then, once again, what in the world would they ever back?

Infrastructure talks continue among a group of so-called moderate senators from both parties, but prospects for success remain dim. Despite those talks, it is easy to conclude that Republicans are stringing discussions along, delaying votes for as long as possible. At some point, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer must decide when to pull the plug and invoke the parliamentary maneuver known as reconciliation to get something passed by the Senate. What would be in a bill passed only with Democratic votes depends on what conservatives in the party are willing to support.

The legislative calendar dictates the need for Democrats to move quickly. It is less than six months into the Biden administration, but time is short. So far, Biden can point to two major successes: The distribution of the vaccine, allowing the nation to return to some semblance of normal (though the decline in the number of shots per day threatens the recovery), and the passage of his stimulus package, which appears to have bolstered the economy. But, the rest of important parts of Biden’s plan are either stalled in the legislative hopper or unlikely to receive even united Democratic support.

Congress works frustratingly slowly. Haste is not likely in the foreseeable future, as it is already the second week of June, with Congress slated to take a nearly two weeks break around July 4 and then a month-long recess in August. The longer Republicans can delay legislation, the more difficult it will be to pass anything. By late summer and early fall, Congress will be bogged down in talks over raising the debt ceiling, always a messy process. In any event, Democrats must pass substantive legislation this year, because 2022 is an election year, which will make legislating even more difficult, if not impossible.

Then, there is the Joe Manchin problem. The West Virginian is the 50th, and arguably most conservative, member of the Democratic caucus, so keeping him happy is imperative. Manchin represents a conservative state, and he must be attuned to the wishes of his constituents. And, while I believe he is an impediment to progress, it is also unfair to blame him entirely for Democratic woes. There are many other Democratic moderates in both chambers of Congress who have problems with parts of the Biden agenda, including the expansive voting rights law and the cost of much of what has been proposed. In the Senate, in addition to those concerns, there is reluctance to end the filibuster.

The victory this week of former governor Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial primary heightens the previous trend in which Democratic primary voters have chosen moderates over progressives. The failure of progressives to win more elections only eases the pressure on moderates in Congress to support liberal measures. In turn, this easing of pressure on moderates increases the pressure on progressives to persuade their more conservative colleagues not only of the wisdom to go big, as it were, but of the need, in the Senate, to end the filibuster to allow for straight majority passage of the Democratic agenda.

Manchin professes to seek bipartisanship. He is not likely to get it. He also says he will not vote for the omnibus “For the People Act,” but will support reenactment of the 1965 voting rights law, which he thinks will get bipartisan support. But, McConnell recently declared his opposition to that measure, popularly named after the late Representative John Lewis, making it very unlikely that 10 Republican senators would vote to end a filibuster. At what point, does Manchin realize bipartisanship is a pipe dream?

All of this leaves Democrats at a crossroad. They must act soon to secure important legislation, including bills on infrastructure, protecting voting rights, addressing climate change, family security, and more, or risk going to the voters in the 2022 midterms having failed to enact most of their agenda. Perhaps, running against Republican obstruction might yield surprising victories in those elections, but that is a high-risk gamble, given Republican built-in electoral advantages, including gerrymandering, controlling redistricting in important states, and the long list of state voter suppression laws.

Democrats must act, and act soon, or risk wasting an important historical moment.

Posted June 11, 2021