(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden and his party finally scored the win they’ve been waiting for heading into the November congressional elections.
But it’s uncertain it will be enough to save them from the nation’s sour mood over inflation. At about $437 billion in new spending over a decade, the tax and climate bill passed by the Senate Sunday is a shadow of the $4 trillion Biden first proposed, much less the $10 trillion plan progressive Democrats sought more than a year ago.
Nonetheless it represents a cornerstone achievement of the president’s first term, despite the White House staying mostly on the sidelines as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and two moderate Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, shaped its final form.
Biden has noted that success required compromises. Asked Monday whether he believes the legislation will help lift Democrats in the midterm election, Biden said, “Yes, I do. It’s going to immediately help.”
In a time of high inflation and looming recession, the higher spending and taxes also offer Republicans plenty to campaign against.
Biden’s economic agenda has been bookended by his early success in passing the American Rescue Plan, which Republicans blame for triggering the current inflation surge, and now the Inflation Reduction Act, which most outside analysts have concluded will have modest effects on reducing prices.
“Last year, Democrats jammed through trillions of dollars in reckless spending that fueled the worst inflation in 40 years. Now, Democrats insist on pouring fuel on the fire with another partisan tax-and-spending spree that will only further exacerbate a recession we’re already likely in,” Pennsylvania GOP Senator Pat Toomey said.
Getting there required Democrats to put aside more than a year of intraparty squabbling. They showed an unusual level of unity during a nonstop weekend marathon of votes on amendments, even rejecting proposals that in other circumstances most of them would have backed, in order to keep the bill -- and the fragile coalition behind it -- intact.
Progressive Democrats swallowed provisions for fossil fuels and other items that they stood firmly against earlier this year, settling for what they consider half-measures to get something out the door before the fall campaigns begin in earnest in September.
Their House counterparts, who had been pushing hard for expansive action on climate change and more spending on social programs such as child care, have indicated they were ready to back the legislation when the chamber meets Friday for a vote on final passage. While many priorities were cut, the bill takes “real steps forward on key progressive priorities,” Representative Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in a statement.
The question still to be answered is whether it is enough to keep Democrats in control of Congress.
Amy Walter, the editor of the Cook Political Report, said passing the bill could motivate some in the Democratic base to turn out in the midterm elections.
“For Democrats who have been struggling to find something good coming out of Washington in the past couple of months this can convince them to stick with the party,” she said.
But Walter said that far more motivating for Democrats right now is the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and the persistence of Donald Trump on the political scene.
Swing voters mostly won’t notice economic effects from the bill by November, she noted, and far more important is falling gas prices and whether they continue to fall for their sentiment.
An ABC News/Ipsos poll released Sunday showed that more than two-thirds of Americans fear the economy is getting worse and only 37% said they approved of the way the president is handling the economy. Other polls show inflation -- which is at a 40-year high -- as the top issue for voters.
Republicans, who universally opposed the bill, have zeroed in on those sentiments, arguing that the Democrats’ legislation wouldn’t put the brakes on inflation and could tip the US into recession by taxing big companies.
“The party in power is rarely, if ever, politically rewarded in midterms for bills it passes” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the non-partisan Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia. “Sometimes the party in power is punished.”
Democrats, who control the House and Senate by only the narrowest margin, clearly have those vulnerabilities in mind, giving the bill its aspirational name.
Although the process started with Biden, it was Manchin, from Republican-dominated West Virginia, and Sinema, representing a closely divided swing state, who were center stage for the final act. Both are pivotal Democratic votes in the 50-50 Senate.
In the early stages, Biden wooed Sinema and Manchin with Oval Office meetings to lobby them to get behind his proposal. Last October, Biden publicly announced agreement on a framework on taxes and social spending plan that was meant to fulfill a central promise of his presidential campaign.
But that collapsed in December when Manchin walked away from a $2 trillion version of Biden’s agenda that would have provided paid family leave, as well as expanded child tax credits, Medicaid coverage, childcare subsidies and Medicare hearing coverage. Sinema rarely tipped her hand, but never embraced the larger plan.
An administration official said Sunday that Biden and top White House officials had been involved in keeping the efforts alive. Biden and Manchin held a series of private calls in recent months, and senior aide Steve Ricchetti maintained communication with the West Virginia senator. White House chief of staff Ron Klain held a dinner with Manchin in the spring, while Brian Deese, the head of Biden’s National Economic Council, traveled to West Virginia to speak with Manchin and his staff, which the official said helped generate a framework for the deal.
Meanwhile, Schumer re-engaged with Manchin in secretive talks this spring to revive a $1 trillion version. But those talks blew up in early July, when Manchin balked at the deal after data showed inflation topping 9%. Still, White House staff stayed in contact with Manchin and Schumer’s offices, including direct calls from Biden to the senators. Deese also traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with their staffers to discuss details.
Later in July, Schumer and Manchin made a surprise announcement that the tax and climate provisions were back in the mix, shocking Washington out of summer doldrums. GOP Senator Rick Scott said on Bloomberg Television that he thought “Republicans were duped” because the deal was announced after they agreed to vote for an unrelated bill to provide billions to semiconductor manufacturers. Republican Senate leader McConnell had said that semiconductor vote would only happen if Biden’s economic agenda was done for.
Manchin agreed to the outline of the deal after he got some attention in it for fossil fuels and secured a promise to pass a separate bill easing environmental reviews of energy projects. Meanwhile, he and Schumer had kept their negotiations close to the vest, not even sharing them with Sinema because, in Manchin’s words, the deal could’ve gone “sideways” at any moment.
In the end, Democrats hailed it as a monumental step, the beginning of the messaging they will need to turn the bill into a political victory.
“We had many bumps in the road, many times when it looked like it wouldn’t happen, but we didn’t give up. We got it done,” Schumer said at a news conference after the vote. “I think it is going to help us in November tremendously.”
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