With Biden's agenda hanging by a thread, Democrats question their leaders' strategy

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi walk with President Joe Biden
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), left, walks with President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) at the U.S. Capitol. Some lawmakers are questioning the strategy by Schumer and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain in trying to pass Biden's domestic agenda. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

For all the ire directed by liberal activists at two moderate senators who in recent weeks scuttled President Biden's most ambitious plans, Democratic members of Congress increasingly cast blame on another duo for the failures, raising questions about whether the party can resurrect the centerpiece of its agenda.

Some frustrated Democrats say strategic blunders by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain were, in large part, to blame for Biden failing to win passage of a massive social spending and climate plan. The men too frequently sought to appease progressives and their allied groups while antagonizing the moderates needed to pass the legislation, known as Build Back Better, they say.

After that bill died in December, leaving Democrats reeling, Schumer and Klain doubled down on the same strategy, pivoting to a quixotic showdown over voting rights that further alienated the moderate lawmakers they still need to revive at least part of the spending plan.

The two leaders played "more to public interest groups than the needs of the U.S. Senate," a Democratic senator said. The senator was one of 20 Democratic lawmakers and administration officials who were interviewed for this story, most speaking on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss what they described as the party's legislative missteps.

Those officials said the progressive-first strategy ultimately soured many Democrats on Capitol Hill on the ability of the White House and Schumer to rescue the social spending plan and has left them feeling rudderless as they seek a path to resurrect portions of the plan in a new bill. They described Klain and Schumer as particularly tight partners who speak several times a day, share a disinclination to delegate responsibilities to staff and have guided the Biden agenda in lockstep in recent months.

Recent developments have done little to reassure concerned Democrats. During a Zoom call last month with the four Democratic senators who have been the main proponents of extending the child tax credit, Klain insisted the administration was still fighting for it to remain in a salvaged version of the social spending plan.

Only days later, President Biden said publicly at a press conference what his chief of staff wouldn't tell the lawmakers privately — that it was a component "I feel strongly about that I’m not sure I can get in the package."

To some involved in the negotiations, the Zoom call and Biden's reality check wasn't just an episode of mixed signals. It was emblematic of the same magical thinking that characterized Klain and Schumer's approach over the last several months — a faulty assumption they would eventually win over the moderate holdouts in their own party without scaling down their policy goals, which would have meant disappointing progressive lawmakers and activist groups but potentially securing the 50 Senate votes needed to pass the legislation.

"They just won’t take the hits," said a Democratic lawmaker. "They tell everyone what they want to hear and they’re afraid to take the hits from activist groups, whether it’s on voting rights or other policy areas. And if no one is willing to take the hits, it's anarchy."

The scale of Democrats' ambitious agenda was always hard to reconcile with their razor-thin congressional majorities, putting Biden's big plans on the precipice of failure from the get-go. In an evenly divided Senate — Democrats have a majority thanks only to Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote — they could not afford to lose a single vote if they hoped to pass what started out as a $3.5-trillion wish list of Democratic initiatives.

That meant agitating a single progressive senator was as dicey as alienating a moderate one. Party leaders also recognized their window was closing to enact policies they had been championing for years. Republicans have a strong chance of taking control of the House in the November midterm election, dooming any sweeping legislation for the remainder of Biden's term. That reality put enormous pressure on Democratic leaders to aim big.

"A lot of this is a question of math and the realities and challenges of getting a broad and diverse coalition on board with one piece of legislation," said Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director, in an interview. "Ultimately, our goal is to navigate that in a way that yields good legislation for the American people. We've gotten two big bills done and we have every belief we’ll get Build Back Better done as well."

The White House did not make Klain available for this story, and Schumer's office declined to comment.

In the House, Democrats say the White House and the Senate need to follow through on their commitment to pass a bill.

"If they don't get something done in the Senate, it’s a failure of leadership and failure of the Democratic caucus in the Senate," said Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles). "We got our part done — now they’ve got to get theirs done."

But Biden, believing last year's public negotiations hurt him politically, has pulled back, telling Democrats in private conversations aboard Air Force One that Americans "don't want him to be the 101st senator." Administration officials say the president and his team will still negotiate out of view. But most conversations taking place in recent weeks have been among lawmakers.

"I don't get a sense of a lot of discussion with the White House," Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said.

In hindsight, many Democrats say they believe the White House and Schumer should have steered a more moderate course if they wanted to pass anything — a fact that should have been clear to them as early as July. That's when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Schumer signed an agreement that Manchin would only support $1.5 trillion in spending, less than half of the $3.5-trillion package working its way through Congress. Schumer appeared to disclose Manchin's objections to no one, according to lawmakers and administration officials.

By the time the agreement became public in late September, progressives had already spent months building the case for a larger deal that never stood a chance in the Senate. As they cut the size of the legislation in half, Schumer and Klain were reluctant to fund some of the proposed subsidies and benefits while dropping others, urging Democrats instead to include everything but to fund them for a much shorter period of time, in some cases one or two years.

That approach showed that Schumer "can't say no to anybody," one Democratic senator said. "If you can't make a decision [about what priorities matter most], then the path of least resistance is to let it fail and blame it on" Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz), another moderate who pushed back on the spending plan.

Many Democrats, especially in the House, believe Schumer's reluctance to upset progressives is driven, in part, by the need to protect himself from a potential primary challenge. Others believe it was simply his broader fear of angering outside interests groups who have become experts at applying pressure on social media and on cable news shows.

His secrecy frustrated lawmakers who lamented how much time they lost building support for measures that had no chance of making it into the final bill.

"Other House members and I feel lied to," said a House Democrat. "That is what set us up for failure."

In the fall, Democrats decided to pursue a dual-track approach to passing Build Back Better. Progressives in the House were worried that Manchin and Sinema would not support the bill unless they held up passage of a narrower, traditional infrastructure bill until the Senate approved Build Back Better. Both senators had played key roles in developing the $1.2-trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and expressed skepticism over Build Back Better.

But over time, as it became clear Build Back Better was stalled, moderate House Democrats — eager for a political win — began urging Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) to hold a vote. But they were up against the House progressives who vowed they'd vote no on infrastructure until the spending bill passed the Senate.

In late October, Pelosi had Biden come to the Capitol to resolve the impasse. If he demanded an infrastructure vote that day, her thinking went, progressives would relent. But the night before his visit, Klain fielded calls from House progressive leaders warning him that they still weren't inclined to budge, according to people familiar with the events.

When Biden addressed the caucus the next day, he urged a vote on the infrastructure bill but stopped short of explicitly demanding it happen that day. Afterward, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who had called Klain the night before, quickly informed reporters outside the meeting that the president hadn't asked for a vote that day, allowing her group to continue to deny Pelosi the ability to bring the bill to the floor.

Pelosi and other members of House leadership believe they would have passed the bill that day had Biden asked more firmly, according to people close to the lawmakers. They attributed his reluctance to advice from his staff, according to a House leadership aide.

White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain attends a weekly economic briefing in the Oval Office.
Some Democrats say White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain is partly to blame for President Biden's stalled agenda. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Eventually, the House voted to pass the infrastructure measure, but only after Biden in November reassured progressives that Manchin told him he could support the $1.85-trillion framework for Build Back Better.

But in December, as the Senate was still negotiating, the West Virginian abruptly announced that he could not support the latest version of the bill, essentially killing the legislation. He announced his decision on Fox News after a cursory heads-up to the White House and Democratic leadership.

Manchin, whose office declined to comment for this story, said he couldn't support the bill because of concerns over inflation, the national debt and the COVID-19 crisis. He's reportedly told allies that a White House statement — authorized by Klain —attributing the lack of progress on the bill to him was his personal breaking point.

Democratic lawmakers and some administration officials say that the White House and Schumer did not learn the right lesson from the Build Back Better debacle. Schumer and Klain coordinated an abrupt shift to voting rights, sending the president to Atlanta for a rousing speech ahead of a Senate vote on legislation that could only pass if all 50 Democrats agreed to change the filibuster rule that essentially requires 60 votes to pass legislation.

It had no chance of passing because Manchin and Sinema were explicitly opposed to the rule change. The two moderates voted against changing the rules. Once again, Manchin found himself cast as progressives' bogeyman, as did Sinema, with activists and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) threatening to support primary challenges against them.

"So Manchin walked away [from Build Back Better] because the White House was putting too much of a spotlight on him — and your response to that is to lean in further on voting rights so that he, once again, is seen as the problem?" said one Democratic senator who called the strategy "idiotic."

Schumer and other top Democrats believed they had no choice but to plow ahead because it was important to show the base — Black voters in particular — that they are concerned about Republican efforts to pass state-level legislation restricting voting access. But the morning after the failed vote on the filibuster rule, a private email Schumer sent to Senate Democrats declaring the defeat to have been a triumph struck several recipients as obtuse.

"Colleagues," Schumer wrote in the Jan. 20 email, which has not been previously reported. "Even though we did not pass the voting rights bill last night, yesterday was one of our best days. The passion and commitment of every caucus member on an issue so vital to our democracy shone through and I thank each of you for your amazing participation."

Former Sen. Tom Daschle, the last Democratic majority leader to preside over an evenly divided Senate, didn't fault Schumer's decision. "It’s a classic case of ‘damned if you do and damned if you don't," he said. "So many of those organizations that have worked and lobbied [on voting rights] would have faulted him for not taking it to the last possible step, so I think he had to go through with it."

But many others in the party say the effort only made it harder to revamp Build Back Better because the experience further alienated Manchin, who has said he's open to discussions but wants to first address inflation and the nation's debt.

If it is revamped and passed, the final package will be far less than what most Democrats had envisioned.

"I think Biden’s ready to take almost anything," predicted Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.).

When Senate Democrats asked Schumer at their weekly lunch on Feb. 1 what was happening with reviving Build Back Better, he was vague, saying only that he was "working on it."

He then acknowledged another senator held all the cards, according to lawmakers who were present. "Talk to Manchin," the majority leader told them.

Manchin had already left the lunch, however.

In a nearby hallway, he told a reporter the legislation "is dead."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.