WASHINGTON — Polls show that a strong majority of Democrats — and a majority of the American public — support the broad priorities of the $1.85 trillion social and environmental spending bill that the House approved Friday. Democratic lawmakers predict that President Joe Biden's bill, once enacted, will be “transformational” for the country.
Yet it may not be politically transformational for the Democratic Party. At least not immediately.
Both parties know that hard-fought victories in Congress can come before electoral defeat. Democrats saw it in 2010, when they lost their majority months after passing a landmark health care overhaul. Republicans suffered the same fate in 2018, when their House majority was wiped away after enactment of a long-sought tax overhaul that slashed tax rates.
But the political difficulties for Democrats could be especially severe in next year's elections. Republicans are poised to gain seats through redistricting. Biden’s poll numbers have slumped. And recovery from the coronavirus crisis has been robust but rocky amid soaring inflation. Democrats have spent months squabbling over the details of the legislation, obscuring the benefits they hope to deliver to the country.
“We do need to turn a corner,” says Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, a former chairwoman of House Democrats’ campaign arm who decided not to run for re-election next year. “We’re not in a good place right now, as far as the perception of what we’re doing is different than the reality of what we’re doing.”
Democrats “have to talk about it in ways that matter to people’s lives," Bustos said. “And that’s not easy.”
Now that the bill has cleared the House, it will head to the Senate, where revisions are likely and passage could take several weeks.
In the meantime, to save their already-narrow majority, House Democrats are working to revamp their message, move on from the infighting and emphasize the bill's marquee programs. Among them: Billons of dollars to pay for child care, reduce pollution, expand health care access and curb prescription drug costs for older Americans.
They are also trying to get the word out about the separate, $1 trillion infrastructure bill that Biden signed into law this week. House Democrats said they planned to hold 1,000 public events in the coming weeks — five for every member of their caucus — to tout the upgrades that will be coming to roads, bridges, public transit, internet and more.
Still, Speaker Nancy Pelosi acknowledged Thursday that what Democrats do on the inside “can only get us so far." They will also need Biden's “bully pulpit” and the support of outside grassroots organizers.
The effort to promote the legislation, Pelosi promised, will be “immediate, and it will be intense, and it will be eloquent, and it will make the difference.”
There's clearly a steep hill to climb.
October polling from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that fewer than half of Americans approved of how the negotiations over Biden's big bill were being handled. And only about 4 in 10 said they knew a lot or some about what was in it.
At the same time, most Americans supported several elements in the package, with majorities saying that funding for health care and education programs should be high priorities, and close to half saying the same about programs that address climate change. Majorities said that subsidies for child care and paid family leave, also included in the House bill, should at least be moderate priorities.
Like the 2010 health care law, though, it could be years before Americans can take advantage of the programs — and even longer before they become politically popular.
The new program for child care costs, for example, would attempt to guarantee that most Americans don’t spend more than 7% of their income on child care. But it would be phased in over three years, meaning some parents won't be able to participate until after the next presidential election in 2024. The programs would have to be set up by the federal government and in many cases by the states — a convoluted process that was near-disastrous for Democrats in 2010 as the website for new health care signups crashed at launch.
“The problem Democrats had in their last rough midterm election, in 2010, was that we were passing a blizzard of legislation but people didn’t feel the benefits until after 2012,” says former Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, who led the party’s House campaign arm at the time. “So the strategic imperative for Democrats isn’t just getting stuff done, it’s getting stuff done that has demonstrable positive impact for voters.”
Bustos, who held the same campaign post a few years later, said Democrats have to strike a balance by telling people what the legislation will mean to their lives while also managing expectations. “Rollouts of huge new programs are complicated,” she said.
It took a full eight years for Democrats to find electoral success with the health care law. In 2018, after former President Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress tried and failed to repeal it, Democratic candidates across the country argued that Republican policies endangered the law's protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Democrats won the majority by a resounding margin.
They hope to employ a similar strategy this time around, but with quicker results.
Headed to their districts for the Thanksgiving holidays, lawmakers were testing different strategies. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he plans to not only tell constituents that the bill would cut costs for families, but also that Democrats plan to pay for the legislation by taxing the the wealthiest Americans. Rep. Jim Himes, also a Connecticut Democrat, said he will point out the contrast between the Democrats’ bill and Republicans’ main policy achievement when they were in control — tax cuts that benefitted those same wealthy people.
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who is running for the Senate, says he’ll talk about putting money in people’s pockets, but also about improving economic conditions so the United States can better compete with China. “I think that the problem we’ve always had as Democrats is that there’s never any context” to the party’s priorities, Ryan said.
Republicans who saw gains in this month’s off-year elections are lockstep in opposition to the bill, and have spent months railing against it. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy called the social and environmental spending package “anti-worker, anti-family, anti-jobs, anti-energy, and anti-American.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said Democrats need to stay on message and make it clear to families what the measure will do for them.
“They just need to make the connection that it’s the Democrats who did it,” she said.
Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro, Hannah Fingerhut and Emily Swanson contributed to this report.