President Biden’s national agenda, like his presidency, is in jeopardy.
He is caught between the Scylla of progressives insisting that the bipartisan infrastructure bill cannot be passed by the House until the reconciliation bill is passed by the Senate and the Charybdis of moderates insisting that the bipartisan infrastructure bill must be passed by the House before anything else happens.
It is, to change the metaphor, an old-fashioned Mexican impasse, with the intervention that will lead all factions to put their weapons away is not yet obvious.
Still, the conventional wisdom is that Democrats will get both bills in the end. They will look into the abyss, recognize the whole party debacle that would ensue if they did not pass anything and somehow come to an agreement on the infrastructure bill and a reduced reconciliation bill.
It is certainly true that no matter what drama ensues, the must-have expense bills always pass. But the possibility of a complete collapse should not be underestimated.
The reconciliation bill is not too big to fail, but big enough to fail dramatically. It exhibits the hallmarks of other signature presidential initiatives which, despite huge investments in presidential political capital, have fallen into the hands of a president’s own party.
In an unimaginable defeat at the time, Bill Clinton was unable to get his health care bill through Congress, despite a majority of about 80 House seats and 56 or 57 senators.
After his re-election in 2004, George W. Bush’s social security reform fizzled out in a GOP congress.
Out of the gate, Donald Trump suffered an embarrassing defeat in the repeal of ObamaCare in 2017.
So, no, victory is not inevitable.
It’s a well-established axiom that the delay, which particularly characterized the Clinton healthcare debate, is a killer. Presidents don’t tend to become more popular after an election, and if a delay pushes a fight into a midterm election year, members of his own party are more likely to conclude that they need to follow their path. own way to protect their interests.
This is why Senator Joe Manchin’s speech about postponing consideration of the reconciliation bill until 2022 is in itself an existential threat to his prospects. It is always a warning sign when a specific party-wide electoral mandate was not designed for a platform.
Clinton did not detail his health care ambitions during the 1992 campaign. Bush barely campaigned on Social Security reform. And Trump had no idea what would replace ObamaCare.
Biden pitched his program last year, but he has never been at the forefront of the campaign. Instead, he presented himself as the anti-Trump who would bring the country together.
Obviously, the size of majorities in Congress matters. Clinton and Bush were unable to exercise their will despite healthy numbers, as Trump had a very slim majority in the Senate, paving the way for John McCain’s infamous “thumbs down”.
Biden technically doesn’t even have a majority in the Senate. This brings us to what sets him apart from all of his predecessors – the massive disconnect between the breadth of legislation he is calling for and the narrow majorities who are supposed to pass it.
There is a villain hunt among progressive commentators as the Biden agenda meets turbulence. But why wouldn’t a president who has an approval rating in the mid-1940s, a tie in the Senate, and a single-digit majority in the House not have a hard time embracing the most ambitious progressive agenda in decades?
Dem factions are empowered to make their conflicting demands because the margins are so small. The bill is so huge – with everything in it to avoid filibuster – also because the margins are so small.
Given the real risks of failure, it would make sense for Democrats to pass the infrastructure bill and pocket that success, then move on to reconciliation, somehow realizing that it is going to be lightened. .
Yet that’s not the mood for Democrats right now, even though history says they should be scared, very scared.