Biden's fate may hang in the balance of these two bills

Seldom has a US administration been so delicately poised between triumph and collapse

US President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi leave a meeting with members of the House Democratic caucus on October 1, in Washington. Getty Images / AFP
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Governance is about compromise, but politics is often an all-or nothing-exercise, unless national survival is at stake.

US President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party is trapped between the imperatives of governance and the temptations of politics and power, and thus between a remarkable accomplishment or total collapse. Yet in this case the American experiment may hang in the balance.

Last week, Mr Biden took an enormous gamble on bitter negotiations within his own party by doubling down on a high-risk but high-reward gambit to secure two separate major spending packages before next year's midterm elections.

He is sandwiched between approximately 50 leftist progressives in the House of Representatives and two right-leaning senators who are deeply at odds over how large public investment programmes should be.

Centrists wanted immediate passage of the "American Jobs Plan,” which was negotiated with Republicans and already passed the Senate. It would spend about $1 trillion over the next 10 years on “hard infrastructure” such as highways, bridges and internet access.

The Democratic majority in the House could pass this bill immediately, but from the outset, progressives insisted that this compromise legislation should only go forward in tandem with a separate "American Family Plan," which proposes approximately $3.5-4.5 trillion in social spending – including an expansion of Medicaid, child and elder care support, universal prekindergarten and community college access, paid family and medical leave and other such human capital investments.

The Democrat’s House majority is so small that only three members need to defect on any measure for them to lose a vote

A sufficient number of Senate Republicans were willing to support the first bill to get it passed, but none support the second. That requires the backing of not only the Democratic majority in the House, but also every single Democrat in the Senate, including conservative-leaning senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Any party that secures $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, which completely eluded former President Donald Trump, would logically pocket that gain and trumpet it as the massive achievement it clearly is in the coming midterms.

But because it does not include significant social spending, progressive Democrats have already derided this considerable accomplishment to the point that it is now perceived as some kind of defeat, and are holding it hostage to the bigger bill.

Clearly the progressives feel that if they vote for the smaller package they lose all leverage on the larger one. And they are also communicating considerable defeatism in their push to achieve everything all at once, indicating the fear that now may be the only moment when they can achieve their aims because of presumed impending election defeats.

They are also acting as if the Democrats now have a powerful hold on the government. That's not true.

Mr Biden defeated Mr Trump by a very significant margin. But the Democrat’s House majority is so small that only three members need to defect on any measure for them to lose a vote. Meanwhile, the Senate is virtually tied, requiring Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a tie-breaking vote for the Democrats to win anything without Republican support

Mr Manchin, who is considerably to the left of most of his extremely conservative constituents in West Virginia, the state most supportive of Mr Trump, put it accurately last week when he said: "I've never been a liberal in any way, shape or form," and that if liberals want to achieve their goals, they “have to elect more liberals”.

And now it appears that Mr Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who agreed to postpone promised votes this week on the smaller bipartisan package, are now counting on securing something like a $2.1 trillion compromise package for the larger Democrats-only spending bill to thereby secure passage of both.

Mr Biden correctly says it doesn't matter when the agreement is reached. And it may be that Americans and others have forgotten how protracted and messy actual major US legislation can be, since that hasn't been attempted in at least a decade.

By stating, as Mr Biden did on Friday, that he agrees with progressives that the smaller bipartisan bill must not move forward without similar movement on the larger, Democrats-only one, he has foreclosed the option of seeking to postpone the larger bill until after the midterms.

That is certainly a response to the show of force and unity by the progressive left, but it is also something he has said many times before.

So now it is a matter of finding a dollar spending number that is small enough for the right-leaning two senators but large enough for the House progressives, all without losing Republican support for the hard infrastructure package.

Meanwhile, Mr Biden also has to find a way out of the looming debt default crisis, with or without the Republicans, before mid-October, to avoid a US and global financial crisis.

That should all be doable. After all, waiting in the wings are Mr Trump and a Republican Party plainly anxious to run against Mr Biden and the Democrats as utter "failures," and to seize power by all means necessary.

It is possible that progressives are so bent on gaining control of the party, or that centrists are so comfortable with the status quo, that both or either wouldn't mind sinking the Biden agenda.

But compromise seems more likely.

As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times recently explained, it is really a matter of national survival, given the threat posed by a second Trump term, and therefore of personal and political courage. “Progressives need to have the courage to accept less than they want,” and “moderates need to have the courage to give the progressives much more than the moderates prefer.” If not and “Trump Republicans retake the House and Senate and propel Trump back into the White House – there will be no chance later. Later will be too late for the country as we know it.”

Mr Biden is on the brink of an outstanding triumph if he can pass any version of these two bills and avoid a debt default. But if he can't pass either bill, and/or a default takes place, he's facing a remarkable meltdown.

Seldom has any US administration been so delicately poised between historic triumph and dramatic collapse.

And even more rarely has the country as a whole been so delicately poised between the continuation of its democratic tradition versus the ascension of a hyper-empowered and enraged authoritarian minority.

Published: October 04, 2021, 10:47 AM