A note before reading: as of February 02, 2022, at exactly 5:00 PM EST, this is the state of play. It is possible that by February 02, 2022, at 5:01 PM EST, some or all of this analysis may be outdated. It’s been a rollercoaster, folks! Hit me up at AKauders@cogent-strategies.com for the (very) latest on the Democrats’ legislative agenda.
While presidential elections have consequences and congressional majorities tend to either help or hurt a president’s success, the razor thin majorities in Congress clearly have been a double-edged sword for Joe Biden. While historic legislation was passed—including the American Rescue Plan and bipartisan infrastructure legislation to the tune of trillions of dollars—expectations to pass the remainder of the president’s ambitious agenda were, perhaps, set too high. The existing political and social divide, which has been exacerbated by former President Trump’s litmus test and demand that his party fall in line, has been remarkably effective and quite destructive to the institution.
So, where does that leave the legislative agenda for Democrats?
For starters, the failure to pass voting rights legislation last month is an especially bitter pill to swallow after last year’s election challenges and current efforts by Republican state legislatures to enact laws that make it harder, not easier, for Americans to vote. As Senate and House Democrats regroup from the slow-motion train wreck that sought to enact meaningful federal election reform and restore key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, their sights are now set on a March 1 State of the Union (SOTU) deadline. (Current Electoral Count Act discussions amount to a mere consolation prize.) While the historically late date for the president’s address before a joint session of Congress does provide additional wiggle room to consider and pass legislation that Biden can point to during this nationally televised address, there are only five legislative days left between now and the SOTU to make that happen.
“As Senate and House Democrats regroup from the slow-motion train wreck that sought to enact meaningful federal election reform and restore key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, their sights are now set on a March 1 State of the Union (SOTU) deadline.”
Exacerbating the uphill battle to enact additional White House priorities, such as the Build Back Better (BBB) legislation, are the historical trends faced by Democrats during the upcoming midterm. With President Biden’s 40% favorability rating being driven by the Omicron spike and high inflation numbers, Democrats were looking to create momentum following last month’s highly anticipated presidential press conference. (Side note: as a former Democratic leadership aide and communications director, it continues to be frustrating to see how Democrats have failed to translate their policies to their brand identity, and to help voters recognize the impact that increased federal spending has had on their lives – from last year’s stimulus checks to the monthly child tax credit checks.)
But as a glass-half-full guy, the encouraging news coming out of the voting rights debacle is that the White House appears to have learned its lessons on how to engage still-Democrat, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. Publicly reprimanding or criticizing the man who holds the pen on BBB or, for that matter, any future Democratic piece of legislation, clearly was not a winning strategy. That newfound wisdom and approach will undergo a real stress test in the aftermath of Manchin’s latest comments that declared BBB dead, suggesting that negotiations needed to start from scratch. And while Democrats may not have coalesced around a specific list of goals moving forward, both the president and the Senate Democratic leadership are betting on a narrower path forward on Reconciliation. Now they may have the opportunity to (one step and legislative provision at a time) “build back better” the BBB bill. And still, the previously unthinkable notion that Democrats would consider jettisoning child-care, health care and tax provisions from a new package has some progressives – prior to the latest sobering Manchin wake-up call – on the record calling for immediate action and looking for a pathway to passing some of the party’s top priorities, including climate and clean-energy provisions, that appear to have broad support. Instead of an “all or nothing” approach, members on the left end of the political spectrum have come out supporting the possibility of revisiting the remaining social agenda items either through the appropriations process or as part of a 2022 and 2024 campaign agenda. And with one prominent leader of the “No SALT, no deal” caucus pushing for immediate consideration of the BBB climate provisions, there may also be a shift among moderates within the Democratic Caucus who are in urgent need of a win as they face re-election in their purple districts and states.
But as a glass-half-full guy, the encouraging news coming out of the voting rights debacle is that the White House appears to have learned its lessons on how to engage still-Democrat, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.
Even so, with BBB suddenly a backburner issue in the sprint toward a desperately needed SOTU victory lap, Democrats are looking for low-hanging fruit that actually stands a chance of passing or, at least, moving in the right direction come March 1. But first, some housekeeping, including the February 18 government funding deadline. While a shutdown is not expected, Republicans are in no hurry to give Biden a win, either. A Continuing Resolution (CR) through the end of the calendar year at Trump funding levels seems like something Republicans could get behind in anticipation of reclaiming majorities in either chamber. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers already are finalizing Russia sanctions legislation in the event that hostilities do commence in Ukraine. That scenario also will result in precious floor time being gobbled up with debates over supplemental defense funding on top of sanctions legislation. Congress may also consider additional Covid relief funding, including that for testing and vaccine distribution and hospitals facing critical care challenges.
…it always will be “the economy, stupid,” and much focus must remain on domestic priorities for President Biden and congressional Democrats to improve their standing among voters.
But back to actual Democratic policy priorities. Fast-tracking the America COMPETES Act with its likely House passage by the end of week – but unknown timing and pathway to a conference report – will provide Biden’s speechwriters a line about his eagerness to shore up U.S. manufacturing and willingness to take the fight to the Chinese by making America more competitive. After all, it always will be “the economy, stupid,” and much focus must remain on domestic priorities for President Biden and congressional Democrats to improve their standing among voters. Confronting the persistent threats posed by China and Russia is something that unites both parties and will send a strong message to Beijing and Moscow, respectively. But fear not, the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation process will take care of any momentary unity, inundating the airwaves with months of hyperbole brought to you by America’s cable news. No trench warfare in eastern Ukraine will be able to compete.
It would be an understatement to say that Democrats have their work cut out for themselves in the coming months. Adding to these considerable challenges is the awful news of Sen. Ben Ray Luján’s (D-NM) stroke. As his friends on both sides of the aisle pray for a speedy and full recovery, the legislative agenda hangs in the balance and remains somewhat fluid. With a singular Senator’s ability to make or break this president’s legacy, Democrats remain optimistic that their caucus will coalesce around their common values and ride a wave of momentum from SOTU to the annual Democratic Retreats (Issues Conferences) to the November 8 election. Plus, there’s always Trump – and additional revelations brought to you by the January 6 Select Committee – who can help lift us to victory.
Andrew Kauders is a veteran leadership staffer in the U.S. House and Senate who served as senior adviser to Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and as executive director of the House Democratic Caucus, playing a key role in developing political, legislative and message strategy for House Democrats. Before his time on Capitol Hill, Andrews was a political appointee in the Clinton administration, serving as spokesperson at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, White House Climate Change Task Force and the Environmental Protection Agency. For Andrew’s complete bio, click here.