Updated: August 26, 2021 11:13:23 am
Written by Jim Tankersley and Emily Cochrane
President Joe Biden, his aides and his allies in Congress face a September sprint to secure a legislative victory that could define his early presidency.
Democrats are racing the clock after party leaders in the House struck a deal this week to advance the two-track approach that Biden hopes will deliver a $4 trillion overhaul of the federal government’s role in the economy. That agreement sets up a potentially perilous vote on one part of the agenda by Sept. 27: a bipartisan deal on roads, broadband, water pipes and other physical infrastructure. It also spurred House and Senate leaders to intensify efforts to complete a larger, Democrats-only bill to fight climate change, expand educational access and invest heavily in workers and families, inside that same window.
If the party’s factions can bridge their differences in time, they could deliver a signature legislative achievement for Biden, on par with the New Deal or Great Society, and fund dozens of programs for Democratic candidates and the president to campaign on in the months to come.
If they fail, Biden could find both halves of his economic agenda dashed, at a time when his popularity is slumping and few if any of his other top priorities have a chance to pass Congress.
The president finds himself at a perilous moment seven months into his term. His withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan has devolved into a chaotic race to evacuate tens of thousands of people from the country by the month’s end. After throwing a July 4 party at the White House to “declare independence” from the coronavirus pandemic, he has seen the delta variant rampage through unvaccinated populations and send hospitalizations and death rates from the virus soaring in states like Florida.
Biden’s approval ratings have dipped in recent months, even on an issue that has been an early strength of his tenure: the economy, where some recent polls show more voters disapproving of his performance than approving it.
The country is enjoying what will most likely be its strongest year of economic growth in a quarter-century. But consumer confidence has slumped in the face of rapidly rising prices for food, gasoline and used cars, along with shortages of home appliances, medical devices and other products stemming from pandemic-fueled disruptions in the global supply chain.
While unemployment has fallen to 5.4%, workers have not flocked back to open jobs as quickly as many economists had hoped, creating long waits in restaurants and elsewhere. Private forecasters have marked down their expectations for growth in the back half of the year, citing supply constraints and the threat from the delta variant.
White House economists still expect strong job gains through the rest of the year and a headline growth rate that far exceeds what any forecasters expected at the start of 2021, before Biden steered a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan through Congress. But the White House economic team has lowered informal internal forecasts for growth this year, citing supply constraints and possible consumer response to the renewed spread of the virus, a senior administration official said this week.
Mindful of that markdown, and of what White House economists estimate will be a hefty drag on economic growth next year as stimulus spending dries up, administration officials have mounted a multiweek blitz to pressure congressional moderates and progressives to pass the spending bills that officials say could help reinvigorate the recovery — and possibly change the narrative of the president’s difficult late summer.
The importance of the package to Biden was clear on Tuesday, when he pre-empted a speech on evacuation efforts in Afghanistan to laud House passage of a measure that paves the way for a series of votes on his broader agenda.
“We’re a step closer to truly investing in the American people, positioning our economy for long-term growth, and building an America that outcompetes the rest of the world,” the president said.
Many steps remain before Biden can sign both bills into law — but his party has given itself only a few weeks to complete them. The infrastructure bill is written. But the House and Senate must agree on the spending programs, revenue increases and overall cost of the larger bill, balancing the desires of progressives who see a generational chance to expand government to address inequality and curb climate change and moderates who have pushed for a smaller package and resisted some of the tax proposals to pay for it.
It is a timeline reminiscent of what Republicans set for themselves in the fall of 2017, when they rushed a nearly $2 trillion package of tax cuts to President Donald Trump’s desk without a single Democratic vote.
Sticking to it will require sustained support from administration officials both in and out of Washington. In the first three weeks of August, Biden dispatched Cabinet members to 31 states to barnstorm for the infrastructure bill and his broader economic agenda, with events in the districts of moderate and progressive members of Congress, according to internal documents obtained by The New York Times. His secretaries of transportation, labor, interior, energy, commerce and agriculture sat for dozens of local television and radio interviews to promote the bills.
Even with those efforts, the initial clash over advancing the budget this week was resolved with a flurry of calls from Biden, top White House officials and senior Democrats to the competing factions in the House.
Congressional leaders say they have spent months laying the groundwork so that their party can move quickly toward consensus. Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California told colleagues in a letter on Wednesday that “we have long had an eye to having the infrastructure bill on the president’s desk by the Oct. 1,” the date when many provisions in the bipartisan package are slated to go into effect.
Committee leaders have been instructed to finish their work by Sept. 15, and rank-and-file lawmakers have been told to make their concerns and priorities known quickly as they maneuver through substantive policy disagreements, including whether it should be as much as $3.5 trillion and the scope of Biden’s proposed tax increases.
“I’m sure everybody’s going to try their best,” said Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the House Budget Committee chairman. “Some committees will have it rougher than others.”
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has been releasing discussion drafts of proposals to fund the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation spending — the larger bill that Democrats plan to move without any Republican support — including raising taxes on high earners and businesses. On Wednesday, he provided granular details of a plan to increase taxes on the profits that multinational companies earn and book overseas.
“I’m encouraged by where we are,” Wyden said in an interview.
Democratic leaders and the White House have pushed analyses of their proposals that speak to core liberal priorities; on Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, released a report suggesting the two bills combined would “put our country on the path to meet Biden’s climate change goals of 80% clean electricity and 50% economywide carbon emission reduction by 2030.”
White House economists released a detailed report this week claiming the spending Biden supports, like universal prekindergarten and subsidized child care, would expand the productive capacity of the economy and help reduce price pressures in the future.
While Republicans are not expected to get on board with the larger spending bill, they are still making their concerns known, labeling the bill socialist and a spending spree and claiming it will stoke inflation and drive jobs overseas.
Biden can pass the entire agenda now with only Democratic votes, but the party’s thin majorities — including no room for even a single defection in the Senate — complicates the task. Pelosi said on Wednesday that the House would “write a bill with the Senate, because there’s no use our doing a bill that is not going to pass the Senate, in the interest of getting things done.”
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