WASHINGTON — With President Joe Biden’s approval ratings falling below 50% after the most trying stretch of his young administration, pushing through his ambitious legislative agenda has taken on a new urgency for Democratic lawmakers.
Recognizing that a president’s popularity is the best indicator for how his party will fare in the midterm elections, Democrats are confronting a stark prospect: If Biden does not succeed in the halls of Congress this fall, it could doom his party’s majorities at the polls next fall.
Not that such a do-or-die dilemma is itself sufficient to stop Democrats’ intraparty squabbling, which the president on Friday termed a “stalemate.” Divisions between moderates and liberals over the substance, the price tag and even the legislative timing of Biden’s twin priorities, a bipartisan public works bill and broader social welfare legislation, could still undermine the proposals.
But it is increasingly clear to Democratic officials that beyond fully taming the still-raging pandemic, the only way Biden can rebound politically — and the party can retain its tenuous grip on power in the Capitol — is if he and they are able to hold up tangible achievements to voters.
“For us to be successful in the midterm elections next year, tens of millions of Americans need to see that giving Democrats the ability to pass big bills makes a difference in their lives,” said Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., a close Biden ally, pointing to the infrastructure bill and elements of the second, broader measure like subsidized child care and college tuition aid.
A year, added Coons, “is a long time. If we can deliver things that matter in people’s lives, we will be successful.”
That is little comfort, however, to the Democrat facing the most competitive election of this year.
Voting is already underway in the Virginia governor’s race, and with Election Day just five weeks away, the race between former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, and business executive Glenn Youngkin has grown closer, in part because of Biden’s dip in the polls.
In an interview, the rarely subtle McAuliffe underlined the risk posed by congressional inaction, all but demanding that lawmakers act.
“Voters didn’t send Democrats to Washington to sit around and chitty-chat all day,” said McAuliffe, himself a former national party chair. “They need to get this done.”
Voters, he said, want “to see competence; they want to see people doing their jobs.”
McAuliffe, who is in a dead heat with Youngkin in public and private surveys, is close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a number of White House officials. He and his advisers have been blunt with Biden aides about the closeness of the governor’s race and have argued that the souring political environment for Democrats is the reason that the contest has grown more competitive, according to party officials familiar with the conversations.
With his state’s voters already casting ballots, McAuliffe is eager for House Democrats to pass the $1.9 trillion infrastructure bill, which cleared the Senate with 69 votes this summer. Pelosi promised a band of centrist lawmakers last month that she would bring the measure to a vote by Monday. But with progressives vowing to vote down the infrastructure bill until a vote is held on the larger social welfare legislation, that timing is now up in the air.
“We’re desperate for this,” McAuliffe said of how he and other current governors view the public works measure. “We need to fix our roads, bridges. This is too important.”
His fellow moderates, if not quite feeling the same level of political urgency, agree and are perplexed by Biden’s failure to press both Pelosi and recalcitrant progressives to approve the infrastructure bill and provide him with a substantial and much-needed victory.
“I would love to see President Biden with a hard hat on and a shovel, starting some of the infrastructure programs that we’d pass in this bill,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., one of the centrists summoned to the White House this week.
Biden, however, is stepping gingerly between his party’s competing factions, a recognition that he cannot upset either wing when he has only 50 Senate Democrats and a three-seat House majority.
He has been reluctant to fully separate the two bills because of what is virtually an open secret on Capitol Hill: Should they pass the public works measure, progressive lawmakers do not trust their moderate counterparts to agree to an expansive social welfare bill, even one reduced in price from the current $3.5 trillion blueprint.
“I would be very concerned that if we did that, we would never get to the larger bill,” Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., said of moving next week to pass the infrastructure measure without simultaneously voting on an agreed-to second bill.
Progressives have reason to be skeptical. There are several House centrists who are uneasy with additional spending and tax increases, though many elements of the social welfare bill are broadly popular, such as those allowing Medicare officials to negotiate prescription drug prices and adding dental and vision care to the program.
Even if the House could come to an agreement that reaches a bare Democratic majority — no congressional Republicans are expected to back the social welfare bill — it is far from certain that a compromise could pass the Senate, where losing one Democrat would doom the proposal.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has made it clear that he is in no particular hurry to agree to the so-called reconciliation bill — named after the Senate procedure that shields the measure from a filibuster — and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., has balked at the tax increases that would fund the measure.
“So far there’s been no reason to trust that what they say is actually what they’re going to do,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chair of the Progressive Caucus, said of Senate Democrats.
Beyond the specific policy elements and payment mechanisms under discussion, the disagreement reflects a deeper and long-standing split among Democrats. Liberals believe voters will punish them in 2022 if they do not fulfill Biden’s sweeping campaign agenda, in part because it would demoralize their core voters and ensure that some of them would stay home.
Some moderates, however, think that the historically difficult first midterm for the president’s party would be made worse if they handed Republicans fodder to portray them as tax-and-spend liberals at a moment when inflation has jumped.
Republican officials are relishing their opponents’ dilemma, a fact made clear by the assessment of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, this week.
Suggesting that Democrats will either be seen as incompetent or overly liberal, McConnell said of the twin bills, “It’ll have a serious negative impact if they don’t pass it, and it’ll have a serious negative impact if they do pass it.”
Veteran Democratic lawmakers are more sanguine, having long watched the fluctuations of presidential approval ratings.
“It’s a bad few weeks for Biden; it’s not going to stick,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who pointed to a key element of the vast COVID recovery bill Democrats passed in March. “We could go home on the child tax credit alone,” he said, alluding to the refundable benefit most families are already making use of.
Privately, though, some Democrats worry that the party has done too little to promote these achievements and that, in a highly polarized country, they would not even reap much of a political reward for them when many voters are fixated on emerging from the pandemic.
The specter of 2010 looms large: a unified Democratic government pushed through the Affordable Care Act and still suffered sweeping losses that fall.
Asked about the importance of fulfilling Biden’s promises, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., the head of the Democrats’ House campaign arm, said, “You should judge us on our record of results.”
But in his next breath, he sought to make sure the midterms would be as much a choice between the two parties as a referendum on Democratic rule.
“The recklessness and irresponsibility — not to mention flat-out racism and conspiracy theories and destructive behavior — of the Republicans is going to have something to do with the midterms, too,” he said. In Virginia, McAuliffe has made similar charges, linking his Republican opponent to Donald Trump and lashing him for refusing to support a vaccine mandate.
But few know better than the former governor, who by state law could not run for reelection after his previous term, that Virginia elections can turn on national events.
McAuliffe won by a closer-than-expected margin in 2013, and with help from a Libertarian on the ballot, after the rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s health care exchanges was botched that fall by former President Barack Obama’s administration.
Four years later, McAuliffe’s preferred successor, Gov. Ralph Northam, won by an even larger margin than preelection polls suggested because of an enormous turnout of Democrats and independents outraged by the norm-breaking behavior of Trump.
“The candidates are unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on what side you are on — at the mercy of national forces outside their control,” said J. Tucker Martin, a Republican strategist in Richmond, Virginia. “It’s been a constant. And that’s just the reality of running statewide in Virginia one year after a presidential election. A whole lot of the conversation isn’t really about you.”
For months, Democrats and Republicans alike in Virginia have perceived McAuliffe as the favorite, so long as Biden’s approval held up. Now that polls show the president is only breaking even in a state he carried by 10 points last year, however, the race is far more fluid.
And if Virginia, which has not elected a Republican to any statewide office in more than a decade, can turn red in November, it could prove ominous for the party nationwide next year.
“We got to get both done,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said of the two bills this fall. “I know it’s easy to say that. It’s harder to get it done.”