Biden, Needing a Win, Enters a Sprint for his Economic Agenda

WASHINGTON — President Biden, his aides and his allies in Congress face a September sprint to secure a legislative victory that could define his early presidency.

Democrats are racing the clock after party leaders in the House struck a deal this week to advance the two-track approach that Mr. Biden hopes will deliver a $4 trillion overhaul of the federal government’s role in the economy. That agreement sets up a potentially perilous vote on one part of the agenda by Sept. 27: a bipartisan deal on roads, broadband, water pipes and other physical infrastructure. It also spurred House and Senate leaders to intensify efforts to complete a larger, Democrats-only bill to fight climate change, expand educational access and invest heavily in workers and families, inside that same window.

If the party’s factions can bridge their differences in time, they could deliver a signature legislative achievement for Mr. Biden, on par with the New Deal or Great Society, and fund dozens of programs for Democratic candidates and the president to campaign on in the months to come.

If they fail, Mr. Biden could find both halves of his economic agenda dashed, at a time when his popularity is slumping and few if any of his other top priorities have a chance to pass Congress.

Mr. Biden finds himself at a perilous moment seven months into his term. His withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan has devolved into a chaotic race to evacuate tens of thousands of people from the country by month’s end. After throwing a July 4 party at the White House to “declare independence” from the Covid-19 pandemic, he has seen the Delta variant rampage through unvaccinated populations and send hospitalizations and death rates from the virus soaring in states like Florida.

The president’s approval ratings have dipped in recent months, even on an issue that has been an early strength of his tenure: the economy, where some recent polls show more voters disapproving of Mr. Biden’s performance than approving it.

The country is enjoying what will most likely be its strongest year of economic growth in a quarter century. But consumer confidence has slumped in the face of rapidly rising prices for food, gasoline and used cars, along with shortages of home appliances, medical devices and other products stemming from pandemic-fueled global supply chain disruptions.

Workers have not flocked back to open jobs as quickly as many economists had hoped, creating long waits in restaurants and elsewhere. Private forecasters have marked down their expectations for growth in the back half of the year, citing supply constraints and the threat from the Delta variant.

White House economists still expect strong job gains through the rest of the year, and a headline growth rate that far exceeds what any forecasters expected at the start of 2021, before Mr. Biden steered a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan through Congress. But the White House economic team has lowered internal forecasts for growth this year, citing supply constraints and possible consumer response to the renewed spread of the virus, a senior administration official said this week.

Mindful of that markdown, and of what White House economists estimate will be a hefty drag on economic growth next year as stimulus spending dries up, administration officials have mounted a multiweek blitz to pressure moderate and progressive Democrats alike in Congress to pass the spending bills that officials say could help reinvigorate the recovery — and possibly change the narrative of Mr. Biden’s difficult late summer.

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The importance of the package to Mr. Biden was clear on Tuesday, when the president pre-empted a speech on Afghanistan evacuation efforts to laud House passage of a measure that paves the way for a series of votes on his broader agenda.

“We’re a step closer to truly investing in the American people, positioning our economy for long-term growth, and building an America that outcompetes the rest of the world,” Mr. Biden said.

Many steps remain before Mr. Biden can sign both bills into law — but his party has given itself only a few weeks to complete them. The infrastructure bill is written. But the House and Senate must agree on the spending programs, revenue increases and overall cost of the larger bill, balancing the desires of progressives who see a generational chance to expand government to address inequality and curb climate change and moderates who have pushed for a smaller package and resisted some of the tax proposals to pay for it.

It is a timeline reminiscent of what Republicans set themselves in the fall of 2017, when they rushed a nearly $2 trillion package of tax cuts to President Donald J. Trump’s desk without a single Democratic vote.

Democratic leaders say they have spent months laying the groundwork so that the party can move quickly. Committee leaders have been told to finish their work by Sept. 15.

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden of Oregon, has been releasing discussion drafts of proposals to fund the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation spending — the larger, Democrats-only bill — by raising taxes on high earners and businesses. On Wednesday, he provided granular details of a plan to increase taxes on the profits multinational companies earn and book overseas.

“I’m encouraged by where we are,” Mr. Wyden said in an interview.

Mr. Wyden has been consulting with administration officials, other prominent Senate Democrats like Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Mark Warner of Virginia and his House counterpart, Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, who leads the Ways and Means Committee. Other key Democrats say they are also mindful of working to resolve differences not only between moderates and liberals, but the House and Senate.

“We write a bill with the Senate, because there’s no use our doing a bill that is not going to pass the Senate, in the interest of getting things done,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said at her weekly news conference. “We don’t want to go as slow as the slowest ship, but we also don’t want to underutilize any resource.”

As part of an agreement to secure the votes needed to approve the $3.5 trillion budget blueprint on Tuesday, Ms. Pelosi gave centrist and conservative Democrats a commitment that she would only take up a reconciliation package that had the support of all 50 Senate Democrats and cleared the strict Senate rules that govern the fast-track process.

“I’m not here to pass messaging bills — I’m here to pass bills that will actually become law and help the American people,” said Representative Stephanie Murphy of Florida, one of the Democrats who initially announced that she would not support advancing the budget. “The reality is that we govern in a two-chamber Congress where we also have to work with the Senate, and so I think it is the most efficient and effective way to getting results.”

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