With their domestic priorities facing do-or-die votes in the coming days, congressional Democrats are coalescing behind their all-too-common strategy: Ready, fire, aim. Not content with capitalizing on their majorities in Congress, Democratic centrists and progressives are bickering over two spending bills, threatening both pieces of legislation, President Joe Biden’s agenda and their party’s tenuous grip on Congress. House Democrats should settle for a win by passing the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Biden huddled with warring Democrats this week in hopes of salvaging passage of about $4 trillion in spending, only days before the House is scheduled to consider the infrastructure bill. The $1 trillion Senate bill is a much-needed investment in the nation’s public works, with $110 billion for roads and bridges, $66 billion for rail, $42 billion for ports and airports and $39 billion for public transit. It also includes tens of billions of dollars to expand high-speed internet, modernize the nation’s power grid, improve water systems and fortify communities against the impacts of climate change. Almost as important, it represents a rare bipartisan achievement and a moment for lawmakers to shine. It also should send a jolt of confidence to business and investors in these jittery economic times.
House leaders had promised centrist Democrats the chamber would take up the Senate bill by Monday. But progressives are demanding approval first of a broad, $3.5 trillion domestic spending package. The plan includes sweeping new investments in health care, education, climate and immigration programs, vastly expanding the nation’s social safety net. Given that Democrats hold only razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate, progressives believe that holding out on infrastructure gives them the leverage they need to force passage of the larger spending bill.
This Democratic showdown is bad for the nation and the party alike. Progressives don’t have the votes in the Senate for $3.5 trillion in spending; centrist Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have made that clear for weeks. So the infrastructure bill isn’t leverage so much as a golden opportunity that liberal Democrats would waste. And this loss would be felt particularly in Florida, where the Senate plan would commit $13 billion for highway projects, $2.6 billion for public transportation and hundreds of millions of dollars for bridge replacement and other projects over the next five years.
Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill announced Thursday they had reached a “framework agreement” on ways to pay for the larger spending package. But top Democrats offered few details, and committee chairs and rank-and-file members were left in the dark. The announcement looked more like an opportunity for Democratic leaders to project unity and momentum as negotiations continued. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicated that $3.5 trillion was out of reach, underscoring that the goal was not spending a certain dollar amount but adding “value” to the nation’s social safety net.
Congressional Democrats don’t have any votes to lose. And Biden, whose poll numbers have fallen to the lowest of his presidency, needs something to change the conversation from inflation, COVID and the Afghan withdrawal. The infrastructure bill is long overdue given the inferior state of too many of the country’s roads, bridges, tunnels, transit lines, power grids and internet systems. Holding it hostage to a profligate spending package only imperils both parties’ priorities and weakens Biden and congressional Democrats as the midterm elections approach. How is that in any way progressive?
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