WASHINGTON — The day after their morale-crushing loss in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, Democrats are not just taking away different lessons, they’re moving in opposite directions as they try to wrap up their signature social policy bill.
Different factions of the party spent Wednesday announcing conflicting paths forward.
House progressives succeeded Wednesday in getting four weeks of paid family leave in the latest version of the Build Back Better Act. But West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said he still opposes paid family leave and argued Virginia’s results show the public doesn’t understand the bill and the party needs to be even more cautious. “People are concerned. People have concerns,” he said.
In the House, Democrats from high-tax states put the finishing touches on a tax break on state and local taxes. People who make over $500,000 per year would reap 40% of the benefit. On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Bernie Sanders said it would be “an outrage” to pass a tax break for the very rich. He and Sen. Bob Menendez, not typical allies, both support an alternate plan that caps the benefit at $400,000 of income.
Add it all up, and Democrats have abandoned the idea of putting together a bill that everyone can imminently agree on. Speaker Nancy Pelosi still wants to pass a Build Back Better Act through the House by the end of this week, but it seems certain that bill would be changed in the Senate. The two chambers would have to sort out their differences at a later date.
It’s a distinct change of approach from last week, when President Joe Biden claimed to announce a framework for a deal that everyone from Manchin to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could get behind. Cracks in that framework started showing up almost immediately. While it still serves as the template for negotiations, its details are clearly in flux.
That’s not what Sen. Tim Kaine wants to hear. The Virginia senator said Wednesday that the dithering and delays are partly responsible for his Democratic-leaning state electing a Republican governor.
“I hope the Dems view this as the ghost of Christmas future. This isn’t what the future has to be, but if you don’t change your ways, this is what the future will be,” he said.
Kaine said his Democratic colleagues have been purists and spent so long fighting over the bill that suburban voters became more fixated on a party in disarray than on plans for childcare or universal prekindergarten.
But that’s far from a consensus opinion. Manchin is calling for pumping the brakes on Build Back Better to fully examine what’s in it.
“We’ve had no hearings,” he said. “You haven’t been able to listen to a hearing. None of us have. And the people definitely haven’t and they’re scared to death.”
While party members still insist they will get a deal done that addresses climate change and provides support for families, the optimism from last week has noticeably diminished. Despite this, the legislative process keeps grinding forward.
Party leaders hope the bill can still be passed out of the House by the end of this week, though some Democrats want to hold out for a score from the Congressional Budget Office. Either way, the CBO and Senate parliamentarian will both have to go over the bill before it can pass the Senate. And senators are almost certain to make changes, which would then send the bill back to the House. Still, party leaders hope they can send a final product to the president’s desk by the end of the month.
There are also voices calling for the party not to overanalyze the Virginia results. Sen. Chris Murphy said that the party historically tends to lose off-year elections after winning the White House, a trend that has mostly held in Virginia for decades. Sen. Mark Kelly said that in 2019 no one had heard of COVID, so people should remember a lot can change in a year before they start predicting doom in the 2022 midterms.
Others just threw up their hands.
“I hesitate to connect the two,” Sen. Bob Casey said. “I don’t know anything about Virginia.”