Democrats, Stung by Losses, Press Forward on Biden Agenda

By Jonathan Weisman and Emily Cochrane

Disappointed by a defeat in Virginia and a closer-than-expected race in New Jersey, Democrats were working toward quick action on key bills to show they could govern.

Democrats came away from the sweeping defeats in Virginia and a narrow escape for New Jersey’s Democratic governor agreeing that the imperative now was to pass two major bills as quickly as possible.
Democrats came away from the sweeping defeats in Virginia and a narrow escape for New Jersey’s Democratic governor agreeing that the imperative now was to pass two major bills as quickly as possible.Credit...Samuel Corum for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Smarting from an off-year electoral rebuke, congressional Democrats pushed forward on Wednesday toward House votes as soon as Thursday on nearly $3 trillion worth of social policy, infrastructure and climate change programs — but with a deep new worry: Would a legislative victory help or hurt their bruised political standing?

The day after a defeat in the Virginia governor’s race and an unexpectedly close race in the Democratic stronghold of New Jersey, the Democrats in Congress toiled to keep recriminations to a minimum. But centrists grumbled that the party’s left flank had held back final passage of what they considered the most popular part of the agenda, a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill, while liberals blamed poor campaigns and ineffectual candidates.

Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who campaigned hard for Terry McAuliffe only to see him lose, said, “What I heard when I was out campaigning for the ticket was, ‘Hey, you guys got the White House, the Senate, the House. When are you going to get more things done?’ I mean, only in Washington could people think that it is a smart strategy to take a once-in-a-generation investment in infrastructure and prevent your president from signing that bill into law.”

Liberal lawmakers pointed the finger back at holdout moderates who have been the main impediments to passage of a separate $1.85 trillion social safety net and climate change bill, which progressives argue must be approved before they supply their votes for the public works measure.

“Candidates matter,” added Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, one of the Democrats who blockaded the infrastructure measure. But virtually all Democrats came away from the sweeping defeats in Virginia and a narrow escape for New Jersey’s Democratic governor, Philip D. Murphy, agreeing that the imperative now was to pass both bills as quickly as possible to prove their party could govern.

Hanging over the endeavor was a deep sense of dread among Democrats — reinforced by the results on Tuesday — that their prospects for keeping control of Congress in the midterm elections next year were dwindling by the day, amid President Biden’s sagging approval rating and widespread discontent with the direction of the country. Puffed up by his party’s successes, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader, predicted that Democrats would lose more than 60 seats next year.

That figure may be exaggerated, but with control of the chamber resting on fewer than a half-dozen seats, many Democrats understood the threat.

“The No. 1 concern voters have raised with me over the last several weeks has been inability of Congress and government in general to get things done at a time of great need for the country,” Representative Tom Malinowski, a Democrat in a swing district in New Jersey, said. “So the best thing we can do in Congress is to pass these damned bills, immediately.”

Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, celebrated his victory over Terry McAuliffe in a closely contested race for Virginia governor.Credit...Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times

To that end, Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered the House Rules Committee on Wednesday to take up and approve a final draft of the social policy and climate bill with an eye toward a Friday vote. Her vote-counting operation asked Democrats to report whether they would support the bill by 11 a.m. on Thursday.

And Ms. Pelosi added a few twists that indicated that Democrats were in no mood to pull back on their ambitious agenda in response to the disappointing election results.

She asked the committee to add back in four weeks of paid family and medical leave that had been removed at the insistence of Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, though it was all but guaranteed to be stripped out in the Senate, where Mr. Manchin’s vote is necessary to pass the bill.

House Democrats were also adding a compromise measure, demanded by Northeastern lawmakers, to raise the cap on the amount of state and local tax that can be deducted from federal taxes, from $10,000 to $72,500, through 2031.

That provision, too, was likely to be changed by the Senate, where two key players, Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, announced an agreement in principle to eliminate the cap — which affects taxpayers in higher-income states — for families making under $400,000 and to impose it permanently for higher-earning homeowners.

And the House was adding a provision — also likely to be dropped by the Senate — that would grant temporary protected status and work permits to undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for a decade.

Some moderates who had implored Ms. Pelosi not to ask them to vote for politically tricky measures that were destined to die in the Senate were worried about that language.

“Are we going to give benefits to illegals?” asked Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas, warning that Republicans would cite the vote in attack ads in midterm campaigns. “Because, automatically, that’s a 30-second spot against Democrats.”

In the wake of the elections, Republicans hunted for fissures in the Democratic caucus that could sink the social policy bill.

“Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi did not get the message from what happened last night,” Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican, said. “Now maybe more of their members will look in the mirror and say, ‘I don’t want to be the next Terry McAuliffe.’”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered the House Rules Committee on Wednesday to take up and approve a final draft of the social policy and climate bill, aiming for a Friday vote.Credit...Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

They also honed their lines of attack off the successful campaign of Glenn Youngkin, the private equity executive and political neophyte who captured the governorship of Virginia by focusing heavily on education and the grievances of parents unhappy with how school districts have responded to the pandemic.

Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, who is in charge of House Republican messaging, convened a round table on education on Wednesday to try to take Mr. Youngkin’s message national. Republicans made clear they would go after two of the biggest and most popular provisions in the social policy bill — universal prekindergarten and generous child care support — by saying they were schemes to nationalize early childhood education and force-feed left-wing pedagogy to youngsters.

Ms. Stefanik said children had been “forced to remain masked and distanced from their peers,” and exposed to “inappropriate material” on race and gender.

“Virginians spoke loud and clear last night that parental rights is an issue we can run on and win on,” she said. “Glenn Youngkin ran on education, and he won on education.”

Democrats, though, appeared confident they could weather that line of attack by emphasizing the benefits of the programs created by their legislation, against which Republicans are united in opposition.

“Oh, I welcome that fight,” said Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania. “They’re saying that we shouldn’t help families pay for child care and have more three- and four-year olds go to pre-K? Please say that, Republicans. Please say that.”

Mr. Warner was more circumspect. Democrats, he said, had been right to shower school districts with coronavirus pandemic relief over the past 18 months, but they now need to consider how that has fed into Republican accusations of the federal government centralizing control over how schools handled the pandemic and what they teach children.

“I have not met a Virginia educator or parent anywhere that doesn’t think that kind of relief was appropriate as we come out of Covid,” he said. But, he added that Mr. Youngkin had “touched a nerve, and I think those of us on the Democratic side need to sit back and think about how we address that.”

Representative Dean Phillips, Democrat of Minnesota, called the election results a “wake-up call” for members of his party pushing overly ideological positions that failed on Tuesday, like a ballot initiative in his state to abolish police departments. But, he said, his prescription was to listen to voters more, not to delay or scale back the ambitious social policy bill.

“Truth be told,” he said, “it’s such transformative policy for the country that most of us should be willing to lose our jobs over it.”

Still, the failure to capture the imagination of voters was impossible for Democrats to deny. Some lawmakers said Americans would notice once they delivered on Mr. Biden’s agenda, but Senator Mazie K. Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii, said Democrats needed to get better at touting their accomplishments.

“I think we should do a much better job of talking about the things that we did that really help our families,” she said. “What are the Republicans doing? Nothing. Zero, zilch.”

Before they can promote their achievements, however, Democrats need to pass some bills. Some moderates on Wednesday were demanding more time to read the 2,135-page bill, and wanted an official cost analysis by Congress’s nonpartisan scorekeepers.

Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the House majority leader, was having none of it.

“Members have had well over 72 hours to read it,” he said.

Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.