The news from Washington is all about back-room negotiations, divisions among Democrats, and their failure to reach a spending deal, so far. It’s an easy story to tell, but the focus on dollars and deals obscures a larger question: What’s really at stake in these negotiations?
First, let’s consider the bargaining and betrayals. Those begin with bipartisan agreement to pass a “roads and highways” bill, which will cost over $1 trillion. To pass it, President Biden explicitly promised Senate Republicans and moderate Democrats that the bill would be considered separately from a larger, more controversial measure to establish new social-welfare programs.
Within hours, Biden tried to renege on his promise. Furious resistance from senators forced him to return to his original position, but the episode left everyone wondering who was in control and whether Biden could be trusted. Even so, the bill did pass the upper chamber with a strong bipartisan majority: 19 Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, joined the 50 Democrats.
Supporters expected the bill to be approved by the House where Democrats hold a slim majority and some Republicans might vote with them on infrastructure, as they had in the Senate. But no. Speaker Nancy Pelosi held up the bill and refused to allow a vote until the House had first passed the social-welfare legislation. Moderate Democrats pushed back and, to appease them, she finally agreed to sever the two bills and allow a vote on roads and bridges first. That vote, which she promised would take place on Sept. 27, never happened. The roadblock was the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Pramila Jayapal from Seattle. Faced with their refusal, Pelosi reneged on her public pledge to moderates.
That’s the impasse, as it currently stands. Joe Biden went to Capitol Hill, hoping to convince House Democrats to do something — anything. He failed. The progressives stayed together, holding the infrastructure bill hostage to their larger goal of more social spending.
The progressives’ problem is that, even if they get the welfare bill through the House, they don’t have the votes to pass it in the Senate. A smaller one, maybe, but not the whole wish list. Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have said they won’t vote for the whole $3.5 trillion package. Those two may have quiet support from a few other moderate Democrats, who are letting Manchin and Sinema take the heat.
Progressives say they have already conceded too much.
They wanted to spend more than $6 trillion on the social bill and “compromised” with the White House for $3.5 trillion. They won’t go any lower, they insist, but nobody really knows if that’s true. Manchin, whose deep red-state gave Biden just 29.7% of the vote, has said he won’t go over $1.5 trillion. This summer, he secretly gave that number in writing to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who never shared it with Pelosi. Now that the number is public, progressives have bitterly rejected it as “far too low” and begun insulting Manchin and Sinema.
There is obviously a deal to be made on “roads and highways,” but any agreement on social-welfare spending will have to be close to Manchin’s number. What’s not clear is whether progressives will continue to hold both bills hostage until they get what they want. That’s the heart of the back-room negotiations, which have revealed deep cleavages among Democrats.
These negotiations, and journalists’ focus on top-line costs, are obviously crucial, but they are only part of the story. The other part is what progressives — and the Biden administration — hope to accomplish and what it would mean for the country. Their goal is not simply to spend a lot of money in this one bill. Their goal is not to pay for it, even though they are perfectly happy to “tax the rich.” These bills are so large that taxes will inevitably fall on the middle class. They seem utterly indifferent to the prospect of higher inflation, fueled by more spending and already at its highest levels in three decades. All those costs are bearable if they advance the progressives’ central goal: to install a whole series of cradle-to-grave social programs, including preschool child care, paid family leave, free college, and so on.
Those programs are extremely difficult to rescind once they’ve begun, so the goal is to get them started. Progressives know — and the whole country should understand — that piling on these vast new programs would be a major step in turning the United States into a European-style social democracy, along the lines of France, Germany, Spain, or Italy.
That transformation began under Franklin Roosevelt and vastly expanded under Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. The next important step was Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. If successful, Biden’s effort to add big, new social programs would make him a transformational president, even if he served only one term and accomplished nothing more.
Voters never elected Biden to do that. Nor did they give him and his party anything like the overwhelming majorities FDR and LBJ won when they launched this trajectory. Quite the contrary. Biden won narrowly, and Democrats barely carried Congress. They have a four-vote majority in the House and a 50-50 Senate. Biden himself promised to govern from the center-left, reach across the aisle, and restore normalcy after the tumult of the Trump years.
He has done none of that, ignoring his own promises and his party’s failure to win a mandate for tectonic changes. His plummeting poll numbers show voters realize they have been fooled twice over. First, they thought, wrongly, that Joe Biden was competent. He had decades of Washington experience in the Senate, after all, and served eight years as vice president. That mirage of competence vanished with the humiliating debacle in Afghanistan and the uncontrolled, illegal immigration on the southern border. Second, they believed his promise of moderation. Voters’ reaction to these unhappy realizations can be summarized in two words: buyer’s remorse.
If Biden had been the moderate he advertised himself to be, he would have twisted arms to pass the bill on roads and bridges, separated it from the bill for more social programs, and taken the limited victory. He could have honestly said he delivered on his promise to “build back better.” That’s not what he’s done. What he has done is pursue an ambitious, social-democrat agenda, one his own party rejected when primary voters chose Biden over Bernie Sanders.
Surely Biden knows he will never get his entire program through the Senate. But he’ll pass as much of it as he can. Doing so combines three central elements of the Democratic long-term agenda, pursued steadily since the mid-1930s:
(1) overturn federalism and replace it with a centralized state;
(2) use this administrative state to impose detailed regulations on the economy and society; and
(3) redistribute federal funds to favored groups (and tax disfavored ones) to retain political control.
Implementing those goals has slowly transformed America, at least since the mid-1960s.
Biden wants to take the next, large leap before his party loses power. Whether he, Nancy Pelosi, and the progressive caucus can actually make that leap — and land safely — is the real prize in this back-room bargaining. The fight is ultimately over how much they can centralize, regulate, and redistribute.