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By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With the 2022 congressional elections less than 13 months away, President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies could face a bigger challenge retaining control of Congress as Republicans harden their opposition to his legislative agenda.
Lawmakers are heading for a series of high-stakes partisan fights over Biden's multitrillion-dollar Build Back Better bill to bolster the social safety net and fight climate change and a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, as well as urgent early December deadlines to avert an embarrassing government shutdown or catastrophic debt default.
With the 2022 election campaign season ramping up, Republican strategists and congressional aides say the confrontation could be the death knell for any major new bipartisan initiatives.
"As long as there are items like the Democrats' massive social spending package hanging over Congress, it's going to be very difficult to do big things in a bipartisan way," said one Senate Republican aide, who added that the fight over Biden's Build Back Better social plan could spill into the new year.
Last week's vote to advance a temporary debt ceiling fix in the U.S. Senate, in which 11 Republicans joined Democrats to move the measure toward final passage, could be the last sign of bipartisanship for now.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose debt ceiling offer broke weeks of partisan gridlock, has put Democrats on notice that Republicans will not help when the debt ceiling re-emerges in December. Party strategists say partisanship could also be an issue when funding to keep the government open expires on Dec. 3.
"Bipartisanship is over for the remainder of this Congress, most likely," Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said.
Congressional aides say there could still be scope for further bipartisan action on some legislative items including defense authorization, China, Big Tech regulation and perhaps funding for government operations.
Democrats blame Republicans for the partisan atmosphere in Congress, saying McConnell displayed the Republican Party's "obstructionist" aims in May when he declared "100%" opposition to the Biden agenda.
White House officials, who lived through the Republican blockade of former President Barack Obama's domestic agenda, believe Biden played an important role in the bipartisan debt ceiling agreement by hinting at the possibility of filibuster, which would have reduced Republican power, according to people familiar with the matter.
But Biden, who as a candidate pledged to turn the page on former President Donald Trump's divisiveness, may have sacrificed a chance for major bipartisan success by allowing House Democrats to link the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill to the larger package that Democrats plan to pass without Republican vote, analysts said.
The decision could have repercussions for moderate Democrats, whose reelection Biden will need in 2022 if he hopes to retain Democratic control of Congress in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election.
"The president is obviously making the decision that moving his agenda is worth a one-party legislative strategy, and that is digging a hole that he'll have to dig himself out of," said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank.
Democratic infighting over the size and scope of the Build Back Better package could pose another challenge, with Biden's poll numbers down and his administration weathering negative news on Afghanistan, the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation, the global supply chain and immigration.
"Even Democrats who are relatively well disposed toward Biden feel that congressional fumbling reinforces the narrative that he is out of touch," said Geoffrey Kabaservice, policy analyst at the nonpartisan Niskanen Center think tank.
Democrats view passage of both Build Back Better and the infrastructure bill as the path to safeguarding both their congressional majorities and Biden's presidency, particularly if combined with government funding along with existing legislation on defense and U.S. competitiveness with China.
"That's a pretty good record. It's solid," said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf.
But Republicans say that success for Biden on infrastructure and social spending would likely curtail the scope for further major Democratic initiatives ahead of 2022.
"If both bills pass, that's probably it for any significant legislation between now and Election Day," said Republican strategist Rory Cooper. "You're not going to get moderates to stomach any more spending and a large chuck of their policy agenda will have been enacted."
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Daniel Wallis)