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Democratic moderates are Biden's big Capitol Hill headache

·Senior Writer
·5 min read
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Joe Biden has spent the vast majority of his half century in politics marketing himself as a pragmatic Democratic moderate. Yet some eight months into his presidency, his party’s centrist wing has become a major roadblock to passing his ambitious domestic policy agenda.

The latest point of contention between the White House and moderate Democrats in Congress arose Wednesday, when Reps. Kathleen Rice, Scott Peters and Kurt Schrader tanked a provision aimed at lowering drug prices. Democrats have campaigned on drug-price reform for years, and the ensuing savings were set to be allocated to help fund a sweeping expansion of the nation’s social safety net in a budget bill the party is eager to pass.

The three Democratic defections, however, were enough to keep the drug-price plan from advancing through the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Joe Biden
President Biden at the White House on Wednesday. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Progressives argue that the failure of the drug-price measure, which some economists predict could save the federal government roughly $500 billion over the next decade, was in some sense a self-inflicted wound by Democratic leaders; the seat on the committee currently occupied by Rice, a Long Island moderate, was originally expected to go to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive standard-bearer. Rice won the slot in part because Ocasio-Cortez had threatened to support primary challengers against her fellow Democrats.

The drug-price provision could still make it into the final bill, since a version passed the House Ways and Means Committee. The only Democrat to vote against it there was Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a moderate from Florida.

“I understand that the pharmaceutical industry owns the Republican Party and that no Republican voted for this bill, but there is no excuse for every Democrat not supporting it,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a key figure in the budget deal, in a statement following the vote.

Last month, the entire Democratic budget plan was threatened by a group of centrists — including Schrader and Murphy — who said they would block attempts to advance the process unless a vote was first held on an infrastructure deal with Republicans that had passed the Senate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi eventually negotiated a compromise, setting a deadline for a vote on the bipartisan deal, and the budget cleared the chamber.

Joe Manchin
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., both centrists, have been outspoken in their concern for the budget plan’s size, saying they would not support the $3.5 trillion deal agreed to by Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee, down from the $6 trillion originally proposed by Sanders. Manchin has likewise been critical of plans to expand the child tax credit, which progressives say contributed to a historic drop in poverty levels this year despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Manchin and Sinema have also opposed reforming the filibuster, a procedural quirk that prevents most major pieces of legislation, such as voting rights and criminal justice reform, from passing the Senate without 60 votes. Earlier this week, Manchin signed on to a voting rights bill that’s supported by the rest of the Democratic caucus, with the West Virginian saying he would look to bring aboard the 10 Republican votes necessary to overcome the filibuster. But to win Manchin over, the Democratic negotiating team, led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, needed to include a voter ID provision — the kind that has long been resisted by progressives.

While Manchin represents a state that Biden lost by nearly 40 points in 2020, the House members rebelling against the party are not in similar situations. Biden won the districts of Rice, Schrader and Murphy by roughly 10 points each, with Peters’s district in California voting for Biden by nearly 30 points over Donald Trump. Arizona is a swing state, but Sinema’s hesitancy on the party agenda has resulted in her polling behind fellow Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, although she does not face reelection (and a potential primary challenge from the left) until 2024.

Kyrsten Sinema
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. (Tom Brenner/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Congressional moderates are not just bucking Biden, but top Democrats in both chambers. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Pelosi have been working for months on a two-track plan for Biden’s Build Back Better proposal, trying to pass a bipartisan infrastructure deal (so moderates could claim a win) and the larger budget package (containing more of the White House’s campaign promises and appeasing the party’s liberals) at the same time.

Schumer responded to Manchin’s wish to slow things down earlier this month by saying it was “full speed ahead.” But due to having only 50 votes in the Senate, Democrats must have buy-in from the entire caucus — from Sanders to Manchin — in order to move the bill. And with a thin majority in the House, Pelosi can afford few defections there as well.

Biden has become more personally involved in the congressional negotiations, meeting with both Manchin and Sinema on Wednesday. According to reporting from Politico, the president has met with Sinema four times this year, in addition to having numerous phone calls with her and Manchin.

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