For weeks, everyone in the Democratic caucus has claimed that Joe Biden was on their side. Moderates insisted that pushing for a vote on a bipartisan infrastructure bill, by itself, that they were following the president’s vision. Progressives who sought to hold off on a vote until a broad reconciliation bill could be passed insisted they were trying to enact Biden’s agenda, as well. On Friday, Biden finally showed up on Capitol Hill and took the progressives’ side.
In a half-hour meeting with the House Democratic Caucus, Biden made clear that passage of the bipartisan bill needed to be linked to passage of the “Build Back Better” reconciliation bill. Further, he emphasized that both were also about something with even higher stakes: the future of American democracy.
Biden’s Capitol Hill visit came at an inflection point for his legislative agenda. This week, a factional fight within the House Democratic Caucus prompted enough fractures that top party leaders had to keep insisting that Democrats were not in disarray while two moderate senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, remained coy about what they would support in the Senate. That had all changed by the time Biden departed the Capitol, and most House Democrats left the meeting with a positive charge.
The president offered something to all factions in the caucus. He touted the reconciliation bill to lawmakers, and even went so far as to claim that he wrote the legislation in an effort to show how invested he was in its success. But in addition to insisting that the two massive bills must be linked, Biden also made it clear that the price tag on the reconciliation bill would be far lower than the $3.5 trillion progressives were demanding. The lowered cost was a concession to reality. House Democrats had long privately thought that number was unrealistic. As Illinois representative Jan Schakowsky, an ardent progressive, acknowledged to reporters after the meeting, “we all knew it was unlikely it was going to be 3.5 trillion.”
However, even at a lower price tag, Democrats have long been giddy about passing any iteration of the reconciliation bill, seeing it as generational legislation. Speaker Nancy Pelosi went so far as to say on Thursday that passing the bill would represent “the culmination of my service in Congress.”
Tom Malinowski of New Jersey told reporters after the meeting that even a bill that came in far below $3.5 trillion would be a “huge value added and it can be built on and can be very hard to reverse.” The New Jersey Democrat added, “I don’t think the GOP, whatever they may think, whatever they may say … are going to taking away the child tax credit,” referring to the extended tax credit in the bill.
Biden’s presence also buoyed lawmakers who have had little contact with the president since he took office. Emmanuel Cleaver of Missouri told reporters after the meeting that Biden “said some of the same things we’ve been hearing from Pelosi, and people stood up and cheered,” adding that, “you can’t play down the awe of having the president of the United States stand in front of you, talking as only he can do … that resonates with people.”
There were also some discordant notes. Florida’s Stephanie Murphy sent out a statement on behalf of the moderate Blue Dog Caucus Friday night where she expressed her disappointment that linking the bills prevented an immediate vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Murphy worried that “this will harm future negotiations and further complicate enactment of President Biden’s agenda” — but neglected to mention that Biden supported linking the two critical pieces of legislation.
Another theme Biden pushed was how essential it was for his legislation to pass for America’s image abroad, insisting that adversaries like Russia and Iran were watching what happened on Capitol Hill. Malinowski noted that “the one thing that unites everybody in this disparate caucus is the desire to see this presidency succeed.”
“The understanding is that if that doesn’t happen, democracy doesn’t succeed at a time when it’s under attack,” he added.
Biden hasn’t quite saved democracy yet, however. The reconciliation bill is still weeks away from a vote in the lower chamber as the House prepares to leave for recess, and negotiations are ongoing with both Manchin and Sinema to craft a bill that will unite all 50 Democrats in the Senate. Until both chambers pass a reconciliation bill, the legislative drama is likely to continue.
Democrats have razor-thin majorities and even the slightest hiccup could instantly imperil Biden’s legislative prize. But for Democrats, there is an outsize confidence that all of the drama and internal wrangling will be irrelevant if they can simply pass the bill. As Michigan representative Andy Levin told Intelligencer earlier this week: “I don’t care a lot about sausage making. Most importantly, my constituents don’t care. They don’t care if you grind once or grind twice. They care about the final product.”