By Marc Sandalow
Democrats are right to be angry and frustrated that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi couldn’t even get a vote on legislation she called “the culmination of my career.’’
Some progressives, including many in San Francisco, have voiced concerns that Pelosi is failing to stand up for the party’s liberal values.
Pelosi had pledged to vote by the end of September on two measures containing nearly $5 trillion in Democratic priorities, from rebuilding roads and bridges to investing in children, the environment, education and immigrants.
It didn’t happen.
It is not often that Pelosi, arguably the most effective legislative operator since Lyndon Johnson, puts her credibility on the line and walks away without a victory.
But Democrats are angry and frustrated for the wrong reasons.
It’s not that Pelosi has lost her legislative prowess, embraced the political middle, or that the bills are dead. Pelosi remains the most powerful speaker since Sam Rayburn and the most liberal Democratic leader in memory. And neither bill is dead — just delayed.
Despite the news media’s obsession with conflict, the problem is not that Democrats are hopelessly divided. Cable television knows that pitting liberals like Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., against centrists like Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is good entertainment. The reality is that the center of the Democratic Party is overwhelmingly on Pelosi’s side.
To borrow loosely from an Al Franken line, worrying about whether Democrats are united is a bit like worrying about whether al-Qaeda uses too much oil in their hummus.
“The problem with al-Qaeda,’’ Franken said, “is that they’re trying to kill us.’’
Similarly, worrying about Democratic division misses the point. The problem for Democrats is that there are not enough of them.
Of the 272 Democrats who serve in the House and Senate, at least 260 — perhaps as many as 270 — are behind Pelosi and President Biden in the push to pass both the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and the $3.5 social spending bill.
But with only three votes to spare in the closely divided House and not a single vote to spare in the evenly divided Senate, that is not enough to ensure passage.
Manchin angered many Democrats by stating the obvious last week. If you want to pass measures supported by liberals, he said, then “elect more liberals.’’
Democrats cannot rely on conservative Democrats from states like West Virginia — where President Trump won in 2020 by more nearly 30 percentage points — for legislative victories.
Democrats rejoiced when Pelosi reclaimed the Speakership in 2019, but she is presiding over a historically small majority. House Democrats currently hold just an eight-seat advantage — 220 to 212, with three seats vacant — over Republicans.
That’s the party’s smallest margin since the Hoover Administration, when House Speaker John Nance Garner presided over a two-seat majority following the election of 1930.
By contrast, when Pelosi shepherded Obamacare through the House in 2009, she could afford to lose the 34 Democrats who voted against; the party had 79 more seats than Republicans.
When Speaker John McCormack, D-Mass., pushed through President Johnson’s measures to create Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, Democrats held 155 more seats than Republicans.
It infuriates many Democrats, particularly those in San Francisco, to compromise on priorities contained in the current spending bills. What measures would you cut: Dental care for seniors? Universal day care? Free community college? A tax credit that cuts child poverty in half?
Compounding their frustration, Democrats fear they are poised to lose their majority in 2022, making this the last chance to pass progressive legislation.
But they don’t have the votes.
The good news for Democrats is that they already have enough votes to pass what would amount to the largest social spending bill since President Johnson’s Great Society. Republicans have agreed to the infrastructure portions and it appears that even the most conservative Democrats, like Manchin, will agree to at least an additional $1.5 trillion in social spending.
Those are enormous victories that have been overshadowed by Pelosi’s inability to meet her self-imposed deadline for passage.
If the Giants blew a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning, it would be misguided to blame poor pitching. The problem would be a lack of hitting.
Similarly, it is misguided to blame Democrats and Pelosi as spineless or ineffective if they scale back the proposals.
As Manchin said, if Democrats want to pass such legislation, then elect more liberals.
Marc Sandalow has written about San Francisco Bay Area politics from the nation’s capital since 1993.