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Yesterday afternoon, legislators and their dogs milled about a packed lobby of the Hart Senate Office Building for the annual Halloween dog costume pageant. Typically a light, bipartisan affair, this year the costumes got personal. The host, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, dressed his ‘doodle in a purple wig and a tunic emblazoned with “dangerous creature,” a nod to a top Sen. Kyrsten Sinema once wore. Another dog appeared in a construction vest promising to “Bark Back Better.” And yet another dog wore a send-up of the gown Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore to the exclusive Met gala in New York that demanded higher taxes for the rich.
It may seem silly, but it speaks to the edge running through Washington right now as Democrats inch closer to a yes on twin, massive spending plans this morning. After President Joe Biden delayed his trip to Europe this morning to nail that deal down, he told lawmakers that his presidency was in their hands. “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week,” Biden told lawmakers behind closed doors during a session participants described as part plea and part confessional.
As October comes to a close, the temperature is running unexpectedly hot, even by D.C. standards. Negotiations appear to be over on a so-called soft infrastructure bill that remains unfinished. Partisanship remains at a painful apex. Republicans are indifferent to Democrats’ ambitious plans to knit a social safety net. And Democrats are debating whether to swallow a disappointing outcome or keep fighting.
Two components are in play here, independent of each other but inseparable. The first is a bipartisan plan to fix roads and bridges that carries a price tag of about $550 billion in new spending and a tranche of reprogrammed COVID-19 spending to bring the total to $1.2 trillion. That measure has passed the Senate in tidy fashion with bipartisan support.
House Democrats, however, have refused to consider it until they get a deal on a larger, follow-up spending package that would deliver on more progressive ideas but is not expected to earn a single Republican vote. That’s been held up by two Democratic Senators who say they are weary of spending. Biden, in his remarks today, acknowledged Democrats’ ambitions have been pared down significantly in the effort to get the pair onboard. “No one got everything they wanted, including me,” Biden said at the White House.
The new spending plan, which Biden announced this morning, seems to have landed at $1.85 trillion, leaving out some of the prized goals like paid family leave and changes to drug pricing. Even in its scaled-back size, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sinema of Arizona both remained non-committal to the package, a maddening prospect for Democrats who have already bent over backwards to meet their demands to climb down from $6 trillion to $3.5 trillion and now to a shadow of its former self.
The uninitiated will be tempted to look at this as just another fight over spending and policies. But for those of us who have been around for a minute, this fight is of epic significance. Biden’s entire legacy may end up hinging on these efforts. He ran for President as a milquetoast grandfather who could get the rowdy kids to play nice but is facing intransigence from not just Manchin and Sinema but also progressive lawmakers who are telling him that they won’t compromise merely for the sake of a win.
Biden is now in the air, heading first to Italy and then to a global climate summit in Scotland where he’s expected to sell the environmental spending sketched into these plans as a sign of U.S. commitment to reducing emissions. And Democrats, who enjoy only the narrowest margins of power, are looking at this as potentially the last gasps of governing ability for perhaps a decade.
It all adds up to a difficult moment for Biden and his party—and the stress is showing around town. Hours after the dog show trolling, at a playground near the Capitol, female lawmakers and the “Bad News Babes” in the congressional press corps faced off for their annual good-natured night of charity softball. Even on the field, there was no escaping how fed up lawmakers have become. Acting as one of the play-by-play announcers, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar took the opportunity at the mic to ding Manchin. When Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, mustered a hit that tied the game, Klobuchar noted that she was the “other Senator” from West Virginia. The score, Klobuchar noted, was “tied, just like the Senate.”
Sinema, a noted athlete who completes triathlons, appeared to be a no-show despite being on the congressional team’s roster. She’s been dealing with a foot injury of late, which may explain her absence at an event that otherwise brought the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelsoi, Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and their top deputies to an event that is typically one of D.C.’s most convivial evenings.
Back at the Capitol, though, as aides scrambled to pen the deal and Biden jets to Europe, frustration is showing no signs of fading. The fact that D.C. couldn’t push pause on politics for a pet parade or a softball game signals just how much trouble this town is facing. Biden may yet score a win. But it’s not one that feels particularly rewarding or inclusive. The alternative, at least for Democrats, was defeat—and a dire standing heading into next week’s nationalized race for Virginia Governor and next year’s midterm elections.
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