Democrats under pressure to save Biden's agenda

Washington (AFP) –


Democrats entered a second day of likely marathon negotiations Friday to resolve splits over the scope of President Joe Biden's domestic spending plans, knowing that failure could be crippling for the party.

On Thursday, a game of political chicken between moderate Democrats and more leftwing members over two disputed spending bills ended in stalemate.

The result was disappointing for Biden, who says the two bills would restore America's battered middle class through massive spending on education and childcare, while also splurging on badly needed repairs to the nation's infrastructure, and promoting clean energy.

In political terms, Biden's legacy is at stake and so probably are the Democrats' chances of keeping control of Congress in midterm elections next year.

Republicans -- not least the man Biden defeated yet who continues to lie that he was cheated, Donald Trump -- are watching the Democratic infighting with undisguised glee.

Democrats control not just the White House but both houses of Congress, so on paper they have a rare chance to enact their priorities.

However, their majorities are so thin that even one opponent in the Senate or a handful in the House can derail any initiative.

The battle over the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan and the bigger social spending bill feature dissenters in both chambers and for now neither is set to pass.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared a pause late Thursday but the White House insisted this did not mean defeat.

"We are closer to an agreement than ever, but we are not there yet, and so, we will need some additional time," Biden's press secretary, Jen Psaki, said.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on September 30, 2021
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on September 30, 2021 Brendan Smialowski AFP

Before calling a halt, Pelosi used a parliamentary procedure that makes Friday's session technically a continuation of Thursday -- a signal that she does not consider the first attempt's failure to have been terminal.

- Trust issue -

The impasse on the Democratic side is rooted in political differences over how much the government should spend, but also on the sheer lack of trust between competing factions.

Senator Joe Manchin is one of the key players in the Democratic infighting
Senator Joe Manchin is one of the key players in the Democratic infighting MANDEL NGAN AFP

On one side, moderate Democrat senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema -- popularly dubbed the "Manchema" duo -- refuse to back the proposed $3.5 trillion price tag for the social spending package.

They do, however, support something more modest -- Manchin has proposed $1.5 trillion. They also have already voted in favor of the separate $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

Over in the House, a younger, fiery generation of more leftwing representatives insist on the $3.5 trillion number for social spending, or at least something close.

And to maintain negotiating leverage, they are refusing to back the otherwise popular infrastructure bill, saying this can only come once they know they have the social spending one in the bag.

Biden, who spent nearly four decades in the Senate and also spent eight years as Barack Obama's vice president, has a lifetime's experience in Washington's ways.

But despite a near constant shuttling of party figures between Congress and the White House, he has yet to find a solution to the infighting.

On Friday, Pelosi must decide whether to try again to get a vote on the infrastructure bill, despite the risk that the progressives will kill it.

Alternatively, she could put everything on ice to buy time for crafting an overall agreement on the two bills.

A delay might also allow a breath period while Congress focuses on yet another enormous challenge -- authorizing a now ritual annual increase in the US national debt.

Usually this is not a complicated issue, with Congress painlessly increasing the debt limit. This year, though, Republicans are refusing to join Democrats in granting authorization, while Democrats argue they should not have to bear responsibility alone.

The standoff leaves the United States nerve-janglingly close to defaulting on its $28 trillion debt, with less than three weeks to go before the Treasury Department exhausts its ability to obtain new loans.