WASHINGTON – Last week, President Joe Biden jetted to Rome, even as his Washington was burning. This week, he continues his European tour – waving, negotiating with allies behind closed-doors, palling around with the pontiff, posing for selfies and smiling. The 78-year-old likely welcomed the distractions, because ahead of his departure, members of his own Democratic Party scuttled his number one domestic priority, as the world leaders he’s meeting with surely know.
Before Air Force One took off, both chambers of Congress bought the president some time, but not much. Last week, the House and Senate agreed to extend a 2016 transportation act until Dec. 3, which keeps federal funds flowing to the states for now. Democratic leaders believe the party is at the goal line and worked through the weekend to keep momentum up on their effort to pass a trillion-dollar infrastructure package, which could pave the way for a $1.75 trillion climate and social safety net package.
While the president’s away, the congressional kids will play (politics as usual)?
“We’re not giving up anything,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) told reporters at the Capitol after she and other progressives balked, leaving Biden’s signature domestic effort in limbo. “We will fight for everything.”
Jayapal chairs the increasingly powerful Congressional Progressive Caucus. After losing more than a trillion dollars in desired reforms from the package, including paid family leave and a new proposed tax on billionaires, the now-95-member strong group is on board with the drastically pared down package. But they don’t trust the Senate, well, namely Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ).
“I think, right now, the crux is really just in two United States senators,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told The News Station at the Capitol last week.
Biden’s scheduled Wednesday return to Washington may find him and his Democratic Party right back where they were last Thursday, which means overseas smiles will fade into frowns unless something changes soon. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is trying to rally her troops for a vote early in the week, possibly on Tuesday, but both the future of the party’s agenda and the timing of a potential vote this week remain murky.
Moderate Democrats are frustrated with the delay progressives forced, but many aren’t blaming progressives. They say Biden, who met privately with Manchin and Sinema, didn’t do enough to convince House Democrats the two renegade conservative Democratic senators are truly on board with the party’s sweeping economic agenda. And with next year’s midterm elections around the corner, many are looking for tangible proof before they walk the plank.
“I disagree with the stand some of our progressive members have taken, but…it’s not unfair for them to say, ‘We need to know that the two senators support this,’” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) said.
Malinowski is a member of the more moderate New Democrat Coalition, along with the bipartisan – if weak – Problem Solvers Caucus. While Malinowski remains more disappointed in his fellow Democrats than in Biden, Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) – who’s also a member of both of those centrist caucuses – is perplexed as to why Biden wasn’t more aggressive in his private meetings with Democrats on Capitol Hill.
“I wish he was more explicit,” Phillips told reporters outside the Capitol. “This is the commander in chief in the United States. When you spend political equity in front of the caucus two times in a month, I think it’s got to be awfully explicit. You’ve got to be more forthright.”
Now pundits and politicians alike are wondering if Biden and the party missed their shot.
“You don’t get too many bites at this apple, and when you take one, it better be right,” Phillips said.
With Washington awaiting Biden’s return, his most ardent backers are maintaining an air of optimism, even in the face of this Democratic disarray.
“This is not a new phenomenon,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) told The News Station. “Is it ideal? Is it desirable? No. But is it the end of the world and catastrophic? Certainly not.”
After the Senate passed the infrastructure package by wide, bipartisan margins in August, Connolly – who is serving his seventh term in Congress – and other veteran Democrats hoped the House could follow suit and keep momentum to enact the president and the Democratic Party’s sweeping economic and social agenda.
Is all hope lost?
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Connolly said, dismissing The News Station’s question. “How long have you worked the Hill?”
“But this is your party,” I replied, not reminding him of the 15 years I’ve put in at the Capitol, but reminding him Democrats hold the House, Senate and White House. “This is the president’s agenda – it feels a little different.”
“So?” Connolly dismissively retorted. “What are you going to ask next Wednesday if we pass it?”
“I don’t know. I’ll think of another crappy question then, sir,” I said to Connolly, who erupted in laughter.
“We’ll see,” Connolly said as he headed to a waiting car.
“Are you optimistic?” I pressed before the door closed.
Connolly paused, thinking it over before he offered, “I’m cautiously hopeful.”