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Explained: The civil war in the US Democratic Party, and Biden's many dilemmas

Biden's presidency is facing a pivotal moment

joe biden ap US President Joe Biden | AP

On Saturday, US President Joe Biden was visibly despondent. For the first time since the entire saga began, Biden publicly admitted that there were "frustrations" over the Democratic Party's inability to reach a compromise over his $3.5 trillion government overhaul plan, whose fate is in turn connected to a $1 trillion public works/infrastructure bill that is a legislative lynchpin for his presidency. "Everybody is frustrated. That is part of being in government," Biden told media before leaving for his hometown in Delaware.

Biden's presidency is facing a pivotal moment. On the back of the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal and an uncontrolled surge of the coronavirus pandemic, his poll numbers are tanking. Biden's approval rating has fallen to a new low of 43 per cent, the lowest since he took office. Polls from Ipsos, Emerson College, YouGov, Rasmussen Reports/Pulse Opinion Research and ABC News/The Washington Post all show the same trend—Biden’s disapproval rate outpaces his approval rate. 

If Biden's legislative agenda fails, it could mean curtains for the Democratic Party in the upcoming crucial 2021 mid-term polls and larger questions for the president to ponder over. The reason for his defeat this time will not be the Republican Party in the opposition, but feuding sections of moderates and progressives within his own outfit who have held his legislative agenda to ransom. 

What is ailing Biden?

What is happening right now is largely a civil war within the Democratic Party, between its progressive wing and the party establishment dominated by moderates like Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The progressives, under the leadership of Senator Bernie Sanders, and led in the house by caucus chair Pramila Jayapal, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar all want a more sweeping social security programme to be passed by the congress. Their initial plan was to have a $6 trillion package, which was then brought down to $3.5 trillion to cover expanded medicare and medicaid, universal pre-kindergarten child care, paid family leave, lesser health insurance cost, more money for fighting climate change etc. The Republicans called it “creeping socialism” and fiscally conservative, centrist Democrats like senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are opposed to it.

Manchin says he can go as high as $1.5 trillion, not more. The progressives will not come down from $3.5 trillion. Biden has reportedly expressed willingness to compromise at $1.9 trillion. Without that bill passed by the senate, the progressive caucus will not let the $1 trillion infrastructure project—Biden’s signature theme to rebuild freeways, airports, and infuse more money to rebuild infrastructure—pass. The infra bill was approved by the senate in August, its passage aided by the centrist Democrats who are now opposed to the $3.5 trillion bill.

The Democrat majority in the house is razor-thin; a flip of three votes is all it takes for a bill to fail. The situation is somewhat similar in the senate as well. Since the Republicans are all opposed, the Democrats will need all their 50 votes in the senate and then the casting vote by Vice President Kamala Harris to pass the social security bill through a special reconciliation vote. Most bills need 60 votes to pass in the senate. This is because those opposed to the bill can attempt filibuster, the process of prolonging the debate as much as they want, effectively killing the bill. It needs 60 votes to override a filibuster. Reconciliation bill is another method to beat filibuster, by which certain bills, like a money bill, need just a simple majority—51 votes in this case.

But, without Manchin and Sinema’s support, even a simple majority is not possible. The progressives have made it clear that they will vote for the $1 trillion infra bill only after the social security bill is passed. It forced Speaker Nancy Pelosi to postpone the house vote on the infra bill from September 30 to October 1. The vote did not happen on October 1 as well, because it was clear that the Democratic leadership failed to convince the warring factions and command a majority. Biden, who addressed the congressional Democrats in a private meeting, said the infrastructure bill was not going to happen until an agreement on the social security project was reached.

This has been a tactical victory for the progressives. For long, they have threatened to stall bills if their demands were not met, but they used to give in after protracted negotiations. But, this time, they held firm and forced the Democratic leadership to reconsider their demands. It could force the centrist leadership to shift further to the left. One advantage for the progressives is that most of them represent solid Democratic constituencies in deep blue cities on both coasts, and are likely to win their next elections. So they can afford to play chicken. But, a majority of the centrists and moderates in the Democratic Party are from marginal constituencies, and the inability to pass the infrastructure bill, which they were hoping to sell to their voters before the next elections, could prove costly. The failure to get the infra bill passed and also because of the perceived shift of the Democratic Party to the left, many of these centrist congressmen have become vulnerable to challenge from moderate Republican challengers in the next elections. In the senate, the same fear affects Manchin, who is from West Virginia, a solid Republican state, and Sinema from Arizona, who idolises late conservative stalwart John McCain.

The debate is even more crucial as the debt ceiling crisis is also linked to it. The debt ceiling of $28.4 trillion imposed by the congress is likely to fall short in the coming days, and unless the congress is able to raise it, there is at least a theoretical possibility of the US defaulting on its debt obligations, which could have severe global ramifications as well. The Republicans refused to cooperate in passing a bill to raise the debt ceiling—although they helped pass an appropriations bill to avert a government shutdown and allow funding till December 3—with minority leader Mitch McConnel saying it is the duty of the ruling party to get it done. He suggested adding it to the reconciliation bill and getting it passed. But, with Manchin and Sinema holding out, it remains to be seen how it can be done. Second, the reconciliation process may take some time and the default may happen before that can be finalised. 

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