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Carl P. Leubsdorf: Democrats' reality check

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Carl P. Leubsdorf

It was the week that President Joe Biden and the Democratic majorities in Congress came face-to-face with reality.

And that reality is that their narrow congressional majorities are insufficient to pass all of Biden’s far-reaching domestic proposals, as meritorious as most of them are.

As the daily Washington political dope sheet Punchbowl put it: “It’s tough to pass FDR-sized programs without FDR-sized majorities.”

Biden himself delivered the message that compromises within their divided ranks are necessary. Speaking to House Democrats after a week of messy maneuvering, he said that, while he still favors his full $3.5 trillion proposal in expanded domestic programs, his talks with two moderate Democratic senators convinced him a smaller total is the only way it can pass.

That will require progressives to acquiesce in trimming, probably substantially, the budget reconciliation package, either scaling back or eliminating some items. Significantly, neither Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., or Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., two top progressive leaders, disputed that in television appearances Sunday.

At the same time, the impasse showed moderates that their effort to force action on the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill is a non-starter without agreement on the larger, more partisan reconciliation measure.

Now, both factions are regrouping to see how much of Biden’s program they can realistically pass, knowing the outcome is vital to their party’s immediate future and their one chance to make a major impact, perhaps for many years.

In some ways, last week’s House of Representatives drama provided a classic illustration of the adage that likens lawmaking to sausage-making and concluded, “you should never watch either one being made.”

But if the process looked unappealing, and the likelihood of ultimate success often seemed in question, the bottom line is that the week ended with a potential path forward, assuming the Democrats follow it.

It depends on whether the two warring factions can agree on a scaled-down version of domestic and environmental program expansions – and on how they cut it from the current total (at least $3.5 trillion) to the level Biden suggested was most likely, between $1.9 trillion to $2.3 trillion.

Many Democrats are reluctant to drop any parts of the bill, which funds measures on which they have campaigned for years – expanded day care support, universal pre-kindergarten, family and medical leave, expanded health coverage, energy tax credits, two-year community college.

Constraining everything are the narrow Democratic congressional margins. Their 220-212 House majority means they can afford to lose only three members on a partisan vote. The 50-50 Senate means they need every Democrat so Vice President Kamala Harris can break a tie in their favor.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs passed in the 1960s, Democratic majorities were 68-32 in the Senate and 295-140 in the House. Their margins were even larger during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

House moderates are reflecting concern about next year’s midterm elections in their closely divided districts. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, one key moderate leader, got just 53% of the vote last year in his New Jersey district, compared with 83% in hers for Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

What still bodes well for Biden is that, despite disagreements on the size of the proposed spending, virtually all Democrats favor expanding social programs and financing them with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

But the need for unanimity and the resulting internal party tensions show it will still take some old-fashioned political muscle and compromise to get it all done.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Email carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

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