The president’s push for transformative policies is running into the realities of governing with no votes to spare.
WASHINGTON — When President Biden took office, he made the case that a pandemic that had touched off a national crisis could foster a new consensus in Washington, softening partisan divisions and allowing for the kind of transformational change that would meet a devastating and dangerous moment for the country.
Pushing past obvious rifts within his own party, he proposed the biggest social agenda in a generation — a huge public works initiative to repair dilapidated infrastructure and create jobs, a cradle-to-grave social safety net plan, ambitious programs to curb climate change, and tax hikes on the rich to pay for it all.
He trusted his own negotiating skills as a 36-year veteran of the Senate, his long experience dealing with balky Republican leaders and the power of his personality and office to push it through at a time of deep political polarization.
But as his agenda hung in the balance in Congress this week, it was painfully clear that his assumptions had run headlong into the political realities of governing.
While some Republicans did get behind the infrastructure plan that would let them celebrate at groundbreakings back home, they adamantly refused to embrace the reweaving of the social safety net that Mr. Biden and many Democrats envisioned. And while the president’s proposals are widely popular with the public and have strong support among the great majority of Democrats in Congress, they did not have the unequivocal support of everyone in his party.
That has made for a very bumpy path for the president’s agenda in a Congress in which Democrats have very few votes to spare in the House and a 50-50 Senate with absolutely no room for error.
The turbulence encountered by Mr. Biden and his proposals showed that without larger majorities in Congress — the kind that Democrats currently lack — transformational change is hard to come by. And with absolutely no leeway for defections, party divisions of the kind that have flared up in Democratic ranks can be fatal — or, at minimum, lead to a significant narrowing of expectations.
It is a point that Republicans have been making repeatedly, and it was archly driven home again by Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, as he detailed his opposition to Mr. Biden’s plan and demanded that it be cut back by as much as $2 trillion before he would provide his own essential support.
“For them to get theirs, elect more liberals,” Mr. Manchin declared on Capitol Hill, saying that he feared the reach of the program being pursued by Democrats would “basically change our whole society to an entitlement mentality.”
Previous presidents who were able to carry out agendas as ambitious as Mr. Biden’s enjoyed far greater latitude on Capitol Hill, a point Mr. Biden made himself on Friday as he met privately with House Democrats at a unity rally. Lyndon B. Johnson had supermajorities in both chambers of Congress when he maneuvered Medicare into law in 1965. Even then, the process was a difficult one, requiring intensive lobbying by Mr. Johnson, himself a longtime denizen of the Senate.
Enactment of the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration was also accomplished with much larger Democratic majorities, including a brief window in which the party held a supermajority of 60 votes in the Senate. Even then, the path to enactment was treacherous and circuitous, forcing adjustments in the legislation that hindered its rollout and have complicated coverage under the law to this day.
Then as now, it fell to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who specializes in navigating legislation through impossibly tight political squeezes, to muscle the measure through to enactment. But in 2010, she had much more leeway; despite 34 House Democrats opposing the health care bill, she still had enough votes to pass it.
Securing Mr. Biden’s ambitious agenda, by contrast, will require the support of every single one of the 50 votes Democrats control in the Senate, and nearly every one that they control in the House.
While Mr. Manchin has been the most outspoken member of Congress in his pushback against Mr. Biden’s program, he has been allied with Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, who has her own set of objections to the sweeping social program and has also not been willing to commit to voting for the legislation.
Other moderates in the House and Senate have more quietly expressed some unease about the scope and cost of the Democratic plan, Many of them are enthusiastic supporters of the infrastructure bill, which they see as much more palatable and an easier to sell to constituents given its support from Republicans in both the House and Senate.
It was moderates’ preference for the infrastructure measure that drove progressive Democrats in the House to threaten to bring down the $1 trillion public works legislation. Their fear was that those more centrist House and Senate Democrats would not rally behind the safety net and environmental programs if they had already won much of what they wanted in the public works bill.
Progressives said they had to be sure the rest of the Biden agenda would be enacted once the infrastructure measure was signed and saw their ability to hold up the measure as leverage.
In the middle has been Mr. Biden, who considers himself a savvy bipartisan deal maker, but whose skill at courting compromise has not translated into an ability to forge a quick agreement among the warring factions within his party. In the absence of that agreement, Ms. Pelosi on Friday pulled back from a vote on the infrastructure bill. The move, which angered moderates who fumed that she had gone back on a promise, bought those involved in the negotiations more time to find some kind of consensus and get both the public works bill and social policy measure to Mr. Biden’s desk.
Leaders of the progressive bloc were quick to point out that it was just a sliver of their fellow Democrats who were standing between Mr. Biden and his legislative goals.
“Four percent of Democrats are opposing passing the president’s agenda right now,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal, the Washington Democrat who is the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “That is the group we are concerned about.”
House moderates say they want to pass some version of the social policy package, though they have raised objections to various details. And Mr. Manchin, while insisting he wants to spend no more than $1.5 trillion on that bill, laid out his objectives for it, giving the administration hope that a process that may look messy at the moment would ultimately lead to a measure that could become law.
“We know that compromise is inevitable,” said Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary. “But the good news is, is that there is agreement among most Democrats, if not every single one of them, that we need to get something done; that we need to do more to rebuild our roads and railways and bridges; that we need to cut costs for the American people; we need to address the climate crisis.”
Democratic leaders have portrayed the broad legislation as essential for their party to reassure voters that government can work for them.
Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and majority leader, has said that almost any level of spending that Democrats can push through is better than no bill, making it unlikely that progressives would abandon the legislation even its price tag drops to Mr. Manchin’s preferred target.
Democrats also believe that Mr. Manchin left them room to push the cost closer to $2 trillion and still allow him to claim that he scaled it back significantly. They see a path to a win despite the turmoil of the past few days.
But absent a sudden expansion in their ranks, Mr. Biden and Democratic leaders now realize that they must adjust their original legislative vision in line with their actual numbers in Congress, and that any legislation they produce will not have the reach they anticipated when they began.