President Biden doesn't have much to show for his promise to be the consummate legislative dealmaker, even after the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure package, which he'lls sign into law on Monday. But Biden does have the chance to lead his party out of a quagmire as the last Democrat in Washington both the moderate and progressive factions trust.
Moderates suspect progressives are cooking the books to make the sprawling reconciliation bill look like it will cost less than $2 trillion. Progressives fear they'll be double-crossed on this legislation now that moderates have already been given most of what they want on infrastructure.
Originally, progressives weren't going to let the roads-and-bridges bill pass without their preferred legislation getting an affirmative vote first. But with the exception of the Squad, the progressives mostly did vote to let infrastructure proceed in exchange for promises on reconciliation. Why? Because they trust Biden. He made promises, and they believe he intends to keep them, even as progrssives fret that the moderates will simply move the goalposts once the Congressional Budget Office releases its reconciliation bill score.
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If Biden cannot deliver, however, it will be disastrous for Democratic unity. Not only are they running out of chances to pass their legislative agenda — presumably, few lawmakers will want to take tough votes in an election year, and their majorities could easily be gone in 2023 — but the distrust between the party's factions would spin out of control. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could go on extended vacation without having to worry about Democrats achieving anything on Capitol Hill.
Progressives would also likely wind up being led by the most aggressive members of their ranks in the event of a Biden failure, because they'll feel that those who sided with leadership made a serious strategic error. The left wants a transformative agenda, even with razor-thin congressional majorities. Political realism will not win the day. Moderates could then decide to do whatever it takes to save their seats next year, spooked by the elections in Virginia and New Jersey.
Whatever you believe Biden's claims for how his plans will affect the budget deficit, he's the only leader who can reduce the trust deficit among congressional Democrats. He doesn't just want both bills to pass — he needs it.
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