It's Political Science 101: in the United States, the more political capital a president has, the more likely he/she is to win important fights. And as a Democratic-led Congress looks ahead to the fall, and President Joe Biden's domestic agenda hangs in the balance, the New York Times reports that the White House is running low on political capital at an inopportune time.
With President Biden facing a political crisis that has shaken his standing in his party, Democrats across the country are increasingly worried about their ability to maintain power in Washington, as his administration struggles to defend its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and stanch a resurgent pandemic that appeared to be waning only weeks ago.
All things considered, I think "political crisis" is probably overstating matters, but it's nevertheless true that the president was in a stronger position a few weeks ago. Coverage of developments in Afghanistan has been brutal; Biden's approval rating has dipped below 50% for the first time; and even public support for his handling of the pandemic has fallen, despite the obvious fact that the surge in COVID-19 infections is not his fault.
But presidential political capital is not some ephemeral thing that exists in an unreachable vacuum. If congressional Democrats want Biden to be in a stronger position, even for their own benefit, they can give him more capital by passing his agenda.
And to an extraordinary degree, a small handful of moderate House Dems -- whose own political fortunes appear to be tied to Biden's -- appear ready to make things dramatically worse for the White House. As the New York Times explained in a separate report:
House Democrats will end their summer break on Monday, amid finger-pointing and rising tensions, to try to pave the legislative way for the most ambitious expansion of the nation's social safety net in a half century. But the divisions emerging over an arcane budget measure needed to shield a $3.5 trillion social policy bill from a filibuster are exposing deep strains in the Democratic Party over ideology, generational divides and the fruits of power and incumbency.
As House members return to work, let's recap how we arrived at this point by circling back to our earlier coverage.
The Democratic road map to legislative success was relatively clear. The Senate recently approved a $3.5 trillion budget resolution with unanimous support from the Democratic conference. The plan was for the House to approve the same budget blueprint, at which point the party could flesh out an ambitious intra-party compromise.
Two weeks ago, nine House Democrats -- whom Jon Chait nicknamed the "Suicide Squad" -- announced they'd defeat the budget resolution, effectively crushing Biden's entire domestic agenda, unless the House first passes the Senate's bipartisan infrastructure plan.
The rebellion is being led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), who's joined by Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-Ga.), Filemon Vela (D-Texas), Jared Golden (D-Maine), Henry Cueller (D-Texas), Vicente Gonzales (D-Texas), Ed Case (D-Hawaii), Jim Costa (D-Calif.), and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.).
These nine moderates -- representing roughly 4% of the House Democratic conference -- are well aware of their party's plan. The process envisioned by House Democratic leaders and the vast majority of progressive members has been unchanged from the outset: The chamber will tackle the $3.5 trillion measure, and once it passes, the House can then approve the Senate's bipartisan infrastructure legislation, sending both parts of the two-track package to the White House for Biden's signature. It's the same plan that has the president's enthusiastic support.
But Gottheimer & Co. are eager for progressive lawmakers to voluntarily give up their leverage, and hand it over to these nine moderates. They envision a schedule in which the Senate's bipartisan infrastructure bill passes first, at which point the centrists will consider the rest of the party's plans.
Maybe. If they feel like it.
The moderates claimed in a new Washington Post op-ed that the nation's infrastructure needs are so urgent that the House has to pass the Senate bill as quickly as humanly possible. It's a difficult argument to take seriously, in part because a few weeks won't make any practical difference, and in part because it's a pretextual excuse obscuring what appears to be Gottheimer's principal priority: tax breaks that largely benefit his wealthy constituents.
The New Jersey congressman told The Atlantic that, as far as he's concerned, most House Democrats are "holding the president's priority hostage," which was amusing given that (a) Biden doesn't support Gottheimer's scheme; and (b) it's Gottheimer and the other moderates who are actually holding the president's entire domestic agenda hostage.
And just in case these efforts to divide the party weren't quite problematic enough, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) issued a statement this morning siding with the nine centrists over the Democratic leadership.
It's possible that all of this is just a lot of summer posturing; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who's already explored possible compromises, will figure something out; and the White House agenda will remain on track, with plenty of difficult negotiations still to come.
It's also possible that nine moderate House Democrats will cause Biden's domestic plans to fail catastrophically, and both infrastructure bills will die.
We should expect some clarity fairly soon: the House is scheduled to hold a procedural vote as early as tonight on the budget resolution, which would clear the way for a budget vote slated for tomorrow. As of this minute, the Democratic leaders' plan doesn't have the votes to pass, and the Democratic moderates' alternative strategy also doesn't have the votes to pass.
Biden, who needs a win and can't afford to have 4% of the House Democratic conference kneecap his presidency, will reportedly be working the phones today. Watch this space.