Gilda Cobb-Hunter is furious with her fellow Democrats. A seasoned social worker, civil rights activist and longest-serving member of the South Carolina State House, she is losing patience with internal feuds that have stalled efforts to implement the platform the party sold to voters.
“I am furious at how Democrats keep reverting to the circular firing squad method of government,” she said. “I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand why we keep doing this.
As Washington Democrats struggle through controversial negotiations over a sweeping domestic policy proposal, many activists and party officials across the country watch with collective nods and growing anxiety.
They see Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, but so far unable to resolve their differences over multibillion-dollar infrastructure and a social safety net. They see President Joe Biden as a candidate who ran for unity but is now beset by divisions within the party. Among Democratic House and Senate leaders, they see competing priorities and a reluctance to align their members.
While many Democrats believe that in the end party leaders will find a way to push through their ambitious plan, some have begun to envision a nightmarish scenario, in which the talks collapse and Democrats must explain to voters who gave them the keys to the car. why they couldn’t get it out of the neutral.
“We’re running out of time,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democratic Party in Iowa. “Mid-sessions are almost here. “
Eight months after taking the reins of government, Democrats face a major test of their ability to capitalize on a unique chance to expand government services that depends on their ability to overcome disagreements. Democrats outside of Washington believe the political fate of the party is inexorably linked to the outcome.
In this case, Democrats cannot blame former President Donald Trump or Senatorial Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Because they crafted a plan designed to be completed with only Democrats’ support.
The consequences of failure would be devastating, said Democratic officials and activists, acknowledging that overhauling policing practices and the immigration system has become nearly impossible, while passing a sweeping bill. on voting rights is a long-term project at best.
Democrats have bundled the rest of their priorities – tackling climate change, fixing roads and bridges, expanding health care and child care, and covering the cost of higher education – into twin proposals that are supposed to be the centerpiece of the party’s governing program and the backbone of its mid-term campaign platform.
Having already passed the infrastructure part with bipartisan support in the Senate, Democrats can finish the job without a single additional Republican vote thanks to the process, known as Budget Reconciliation, which they use to pass social program spending. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Said in a letter to colleagues on Saturday that the House would aim to pass both measures this week.
Getting enough Democratic support to make it all work has proven elusive, putting Democrats in search of battlefield states on edge.
“What happens next week is really going to be a defining moment for him and his administration,” said Shelia Huggins, member of the North Carolina Democratic National Committee, of Biden.
Asked about her level of confidence that Biden and the Congressional Democrats will iron out their differences, Huggins laughed. “My faith is strong, but I am very worried,” she said.
Biden has become something of a mediator, snuggling up separately with different factions in search of compromise. Some party activists urged him to dive deep into the talks in the pivotal days ahead.
House Democrats are heading towards a self-imposed deadline in the coming days to vote on the infrastructure bill, which moderate Democrats demanded as a condition of passing a budget framework last month that made the Social Policy Bill possible. But in the absence of broad agreement on what this latest bill should look like, House Liberals have vowed to block passage of the moderately-favored infrastructure bill, creating a conundrum for party leaders.
In Cobb-Hunter’s eyes, such blockages are the result of a broader dynamic within the party and stubborn centrists she blamed in the last round of talks.
“I think it’s because we’re really a big tent party and we want everyone to get along and we don’t have a killer instinct like Republicans do,” she said. . “Democrats just don’t appreciate power – what it takes to keep it and how to use it.”
In today’s Democratic Party, the 2020 election sometimes seems like a distant memory. Democrats put long-standing ideological and political disagreements aside and banded together out of a shared sense of urgency to defeat Trump.
Many of these disagreements have since resurfaced in the current struggle – from the debate over expanding the Affordable Care Act versus moving towards a Medicare for all health care system, to how to balance the struggle. against climate change with the protection of workers whose jobs depend on the fossil fuel industry.
“Gaining a majority and ruling with a majority are two different things,” said Steve Benjamin, Democratic Mayor of Columbia, SC. “We have much more pronounced distinctions in our party than we have probably ever had.”
Beyond the historic expansion of the social safety net, Democrats are trying to achieve something they set out to do the minute they took office: demonstrate that government can work.
Failure to do so would be a cataclysmic development, some Democrats said, believing it would fuel Trump’s statement that the system is broken and his claims that longtime Democratic establishment figures who have risen to powerful positions in the 2020 election cannot fix it. While Trump doesn’t come up with policies to fix the system he says is broken, he was able to win in 2016 by stoking anger and failing to offer solutions. Democrats have said they fear a failed agenda in Washington may be a boost for Trump, who says he could run again in 2024, and Republicans midway through 2022 before that.
Inaction on all national policies also presents more immediate dangers. With Biden’s approval rating slipping in the wake of his chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and his ongoing struggles with immigration and the pandemic, Democrats in competitive races are starting to feel a drag. The antidote, according to many, is a sweeping legislative victory.
“I say this to everyone who votes in Congress. You know, you weren’t sent out there to sit and chat all day, ”former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in an MSNBC interview. “They have to pass these bills. We need help in the states. We need infrastructure. Do your job, pass laws, and help Americans get up. “
McAuliffe is running for his old job in this year’s flagship election. Polls show competitive competition and Cook’s non-partisan political report recently moved the race from the “Lean Democratic” category to “Toss up”.
Recognizing the urgency of the task at hand, Biden held a series of meetings last week with Congressional Democrats in an effort to work towards a broad deal. The president has been praised by lawmakers for his efforts, although they did not appear to result in any breakthroughs.
“One of the things I think it’s important for – and I’m trying to get people to focus – is, what do you like?” Biden said on Friday, explaining his strategy . He said that such prioritization helped secure the bipartisan Senate infrastructure deal.
Part of the challenge ahead is that Democrats are trying to squeeze so many long-standing priorities into their package, with many saying this could be the last chance – for years, perhaps – to implement something. thing on such a large scale.
While many Democrats have said that many individual provisions, if passed, would be popular and arm Democrats with strong arguments for a midterm re-election, for now they recognize that it is become a sort of mishmash of climate, health care and education. initiatives that many Americans have only a vague idea of when they hear about them.
When Democrats talk about it, they tend to distinguish between the provisions that interest them and which segment of the party they represent. Pelosi has long had a diplomatic way of describing the differences of opinion within her party – which she has returned to in recent days.
“We are the Democratic Party. This is who we are, ”she said. “Beauty is in the mix.”
Democrats who were monitoring the situation from afar described the situation differently.
“We have power and we haven’t done anything with it,” Bagniewski said.