Meanwhile, GOP attack ads are blanketing swing districts from Iowa to Florida to Pennsylvania, calling the bill a “socialist” spending plan that gives tax breaks to Democrats’ “rich friends.” Vulnerable Democrats in New Jersey have faced a barrage of ads accusing them of cutting Medicare.
“Nobody’s saying, ‘You know, politically, we need to do this,’” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). “However, I’m sure there are some who are thinking the obvious, which is, we can’t do anything to damage the president. Because in so doing, we damage our chances of defending the majority.”
If Democrats fail, “then we show, we as a governing majority cannot get things passed,” warned Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas).
Party leaders bet that the pressure to deliver will eventually unite progressives and moderates, who are in a prolonged standoff over how far to go with their once-in-a-decade chance to remake major federal programs. And Democrats point out that many of their proposals — such as expanding paid family leave, hiking taxes on the wealthy and addressing climate change — are broadly popular.
The most vulnerable Democrats in the House are bear-hugging policies such as universal child care and government negotiations on drug prices. But the price tag — which began at $3.5 trillion but is expected to land closer to $2 trillion — remains a huge political hot potato, and Republicans’ most obvious target.
The GOP attacks are surfacing in places where Democrats face the toughest elections. And the onslaught of ads makes it feel like the election is just weeks away, not a full year. Until the bill is fully written, Democrats can’t flip the script to talk about the popular policies that are actually in it.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) recalled that when she and Biden toured her battleground district last week, the presidential motorcade passed people protesting the size of the Democratic package.
“They think that it’s $3.5 [trillion], and they think it’s not paid for,” Slotkin said, underscoring the importance of a party-wide message. But she stressed: “I really wanna see transformative work on child care. I want to see negotiations on drug prices that will actually save us money.”
Biden himself has repeatedly asked lawmakers not to dwell on the price tag, including during a private call with swing-district House Democrats last week. In the same call, he was urged by one of those vulnerable Democrats to more effectively talk about how the sprawling bill “isn’t going to cost anything,” since it will be fully offset, according to a person on the call.
Biden and his team have indicated they’re listening.
“We’re going to make sure that everything we do here is paid for and not a single penny raised in taxes of anybody making under $400,000,” Biden told a crowd in Michigan after that call.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has advocated for a package as large as $6 trillion, argued that the contents matter far more than the price tag.
“Democrats have talked for a very long time about child care, health care and fighting back against the climate crisis,” Warren said. “We made promises. We need to keep our promises.”
Senior Democrats have privately said they hope to frame the bill broadly around family, health care and climate. But given the bill would cover a range of policies — unlike the Affordable Care Act — some worry it could be difficult to explain to voters.
“If we do a lot of things … it may not be clear to people what the investment has been in,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), who leads the centrist New Democrat Coalition and is urging party leaders to narrow the scope of their bill and focus instead on long-lasting policies.