Biden's agenda — and legacy — are on the line this summer in Congress

Key Points
  • Democrats are trying to pass nearly $5 trillion in investments in infrastructure, child care, education and green energy in an effort that could define President Joe Biden's legacy.
  • Biden, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi have a challenge in keeping members of their party on board as they try to get a bipartisan infrastructure plan and a massive separate spending bill through Congress
  • Republican concerns about the infrastructure proposal could also sink it in the Senate.
US President Joe Biden leaves after speaking on the June jobs report in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House, in Washington, DC on July 2, 2021.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Over the next four weeks, President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress will attempt to seal Biden's legacy as a transformative president by setting the stage for nearly $5 trillion of new federal investments in the next decade, money that could profoundly change how many Americans live. 

But the two-track plan's success is far from certain, and it could easily fall apart.

To get it done, Biden and Democratic leaders need to win the support of two opposing groups: Skeptical Republicans in the Senate who are intent on blocking the president's agenda, and a Democratic caucus with a wide array of views on how much the government should spend to boost the economy and combat climate change.

"There are 50 Democrats in the caucus, I suspect there are 50 different points of view," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont democratic socialist and Senate Budget Committee chair who will play a major role in steering the Democrats' bill through Congress under the budget reconciliation process. 

The bipartisan infrastructure plan and a separate Democratic bill to expand the social safety net are crucial for Biden. They would fulfill his core campaign promise to be a president for the middle class, and they would also serve as an example of how "American democracy can deliver" a better quality of life than autocracies can.

The president is up against the clock. Several deadlines looming in Congress mean this is a make-or-break moment for his agenda.

The United States will hit another debt ceiling by late July or early August, sparking another political battle. Before the end of September, Congress also needs to vote on must-pass spending bills to fund the government. Beginning Aug. 9, the Senate is scheduled to be out on recess for the rest of August and much of September.

Once the annual must-pass bills are approved, Washington's focus will turn to campaigning for next year's midterm elections. Republicans have a historic advantage, as the president's party typically loses congressional seats during the midterms. Democratic incumbents will need policy wins to sell to their constituents if they want to hold on to power.

Infrastructure is Biden's second major legislative initiative after Congress passed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid bill less than two months into his first term in office. The president now aims to make pieces of the plan, including a strengthened child tax credit and more generous health insurance subsidies, long-term fixtures as his party tries to redefine the government's role in households.

The Senate gets to work

On Monday, senators returned to Washington to begin a one-month work period, during which Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., plans to finalize, debate and approve Biden's $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure framework. 

The bill will make generational investments in public transportation, clean water and broadband internet access. But it will need every Democratic vote and 10 Republicans to clear the 60-vote filibuster hurdle in the Senate.

Schumer also plans to use the next month to finalize and introduce a budget resolution in the Senate, which would allow Democrats to pass a much bigger bill later this year on a party-line vote. 

The specifics of this bigger bill are still being worked out, as is the total cost, which is expected to be north of $3 trillion. Democrats could announce a budget resolution deal — which would include a maximum overall price tag but not specific policies — in the coming days.

If the expected larger bill passes, the effects will be felt for decades to come. The package will likely include money for universal preschool, free community college, expanded health insurance, subsidized child care, expanded family and medical leave, new low-income housing, and nationwide green energy projects. 

If passed as Democrats envision it, the bill would mark both the biggest expansion of the social safety net in decades and one of Washington's most sweeping efforts to curb climate change and prepare the country for its effects.

On Monday, Schumer told senators to be ready to remain in Washington for part of the upcoming August recess in order to pass both measures.

The window is closing

Schumer's timeline for the next few weeks is extremely ambitious by any measure. But especially so because neither of the two massive bills Democrats intend to pass have actually been written yet. 

Schumer said negotiators are making progress on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and could be ready to introduce it in the Senate as soon as next week. 

The second bill does not need to be finalized to come to the floor for a vote. As a budget resolution, it will ultimately be hammered out in negotiations between the Senate and the House. 

Schumer's timeline reflects a stark reality: The next four weeks offer Democrats their best – and potentially last – chance to enact Biden's sweeping economic agenda and define his legacy before Washington's attention shifts to the 2022 midterm elections. 

"The federal government has not made a significant stand-alone investment in infrastructure in decades. … America has less generous family support policies than so many of our peers who are not as wealthy as we are," Schumer said Monday.

He later added, "If and when we succeed, the benefits will reverberate across the country for generations to come."

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) talks to reporters following the Senate Democrats weekly policy lunch at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, June 15, 2021.
Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

Already, there are signs of trouble for Democrats on the ballot in 2022.

In June, a pro-Biden political group penned a memo warning Democrats and the White House that they were losing the messaging war with Republicans over who would define Biden's agenda. 

"Even among voters who have a favorable view of Joe Biden, there is a real lack of information about the specifics of the Biden Agenda," said the memo released by the Biden backing group Unite the Country.  

The warning adds fresh urgency to Democrats' desire to pass the two bills as soon as possible.

Further upping the ante for the Senate is the insistence by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that the upper chamber pass both measures, the infrastructure bill and the budget resolution, before the House takes up either of them.  

With Democrats holding a majority in the evenly split Senate on the basis of Vice President Kamala Harris' tiebreaking vote, every Democratic senator will need to be on board for both pieces of legislation, or the whole effort will fall apart.

A battle-hardened trio

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi stands by U.S. President Joe Biden as he signs into law S.J.Res.15, relating to "National Banks and Federal Savings Associations as Lenders" at the White House in Washington, June 30, 2021.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

Pelosi's maneuvering typifies the kind of experience that she, Biden and Schumer have each accumulated over decades in leadership.

Republicans and Democrats agree, if there's anyone in Washington can pass these two mammoth pieces of legislation with razor's edge majorities, it's this trio.

"The three Democratic leaders are perfectly suited to this moment," said Matt Bennett, executive vice president at the centrist Democratic group Third Way. 

"Biden is the deal-maker. He understands that all sides must make concessions, and he keeps his word," said Bennett. "The folks he's dealing with on both the left and the right may not always agree with him, but they trust him."

By comparison, said Bennett, "Schumer is the cat-herder. He has his finger on the pulse of his caucus, speed-dialing his members every day on his ancient flip phone. ... And Pelosi is the master of the inside game. She can push on both the moderates and the far left to do the right thing and make these deals happen." 

As a former senator, Biden has taken on the task of personally negotiating with some of the most reluctant senators in his party. 

For the infrastructure bill, that meant agreeing to moderate West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin's demand that the package be passed with Republican votes. 

For the budget reconciliation bill, Biden needs support from the leader of the progressive wing of the party: Sanders.

On Monday afternoon, Biden and Sanders met for an hour at the White House to discuss the budget resolution and the broader "human infrastructure" bill.

"The president and I had a very good discussion, and I think we're pretty much coming from the same place," Sanders told reporters afterward. "We want to see a reconciliation bill which shows the working families of this country that government can and must work for them." 

Despite their shared principles, the difference between what Sanders thinks the bill should cost, and what the White House reportedly wants it to cost is a whopping $3 trillion. 

"I introduced a proposal for $6 trillion," Sanders said Monday, "so I'm going to fight to make that proposal as robust as it can be."

The coming legislative push will test not only the Democratic Party's appetite for reimagining social services, but also its comfort with hiking taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals.

The spoilers

There is another existential threat looming over Biden's plans: The Senate Republicans whose votes Democrats need to pass the infrastructure bill. 

In addition to the five Republicans who negotiated the bipartisan deal with five centrist Democrats, Biden needs five more Republicans to overcome a guaranteed filibuster. 

U.S. Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) questions Governor Gina Raimondo during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on her nomination to be Commerce secretary on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., January 26, 2021.
Tom Williams | Pool via Reuters

A few weeks ago, it appeared that Biden had support from at least five Republicans beyond the core negotiators: Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

But on Monday evening, two of those senators expressed concerns with the Democrats' plan to pass infrastructure and their big social safety net bill in a two-track framework.

Moran and Rounds both signaled they could vote against the plan, according to Politico. Their defections would sink the bill. 

Moran told the outlet he would "no longer be a yes" if passage of the bipartisan package enables Democrats to approve $6 trillion in spending. Rounds said he wants to see what the final legislation contains. 

Still, it's no surprise that as Democrats become more unified around the specifics of their social safety net bill, Republicans worry about being accused of rubber-stamping the Democrats' reconciliation bill, simply by virtue of voting for the infrastructure bill. 

But a key Republican who helped negotiate the deal, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, says Moran's approach to the vote is wrong. 

"Democrats were going to move ahead with reconciliation one way or the other, the question was whether infrastructure would be part of it or not," Portman told The New York Times recently. 

"I've never thought that they weren't going to move forward with reconciliation because we were doing the infrastructure bill. Of course, they will try. But it doesn't mean that they'll be successful in doing everything that they want to do." 

The way Portman, who is not running for reelection next year, looks at the deal is that Republicans have effectively scooped out the most popular piece of Biden's domestic agenda, stripped it of excess spending and tax hikes, and then slapped their name on it. 

The next few days should determine which view of the infrastructure bill will ultimately prevail.

For Biden, these kinds of Republican head fakes, red lines and death notices for the deal are all part of the legislative process. He is focused on a legacy that will outlast several election cycles.

"These are generational investments," Biden said in May. "The private sector does not make these kind of investments. We've neglected that kind of public investment for much too long."

He added: "If we make these investments now, in 50 years, people are going to look back – your children or grandchildren will look back – and say this was the moment when America won the future."

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