Biden first-year failures set stage for civil war between moderate and progressive Democrats

"I like him, but I'm not Bernie Sanders," Biden said at a press conference Wednesday, distancing himself from his party's socialist wing.

Updated: January 20, 2022 - 11:13pm

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As President Biden marks his first year in office, a civil war is erupting in his own party with progressives and moderates sharply at odds over key issues and tactics.

With the midterm elections less than a year away, Biden has failed to secure passage of his major agenda items, like the multitrillion-dollar Build Back Better Act, voting rights and immigration reform. He has managed to frustrate both progressive and moderate Democrats. An erosion in his popular support among Democrats has contributed to a steep drop in his approval rating, which has sunk as low as 33% in one poll.

Biden was asked on Wednesday at the second press conference of his presidency why he is trying to move the country sharply to the left.

"Well, I'm not," Biden responded. "I don't know what you consider to be too far to the left if, in fact, we’re talking about making sure that we had the money for COVID, making sure we had the money to put together the bipartisan infrastructure [bill], and making sure we were able to provide for those things that, in fact, would significantly reduce the burden on the working-class people but make them — they have to continue to work hard. I don't know how that is pointed to the left.

"You guys have been trying to convince me that I am Bernie Sanders. I'm not. I like him, but I'm not Bernie Sanders. I'm not a socialist. I'm a mainstream Democrat, and I have been. And mainstream Democrats have overwhelmingly — if you notice, the 48 of the 50 Democrats supported me in the Senate on virtually everything I've asked."

Sanders is the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and spearheaded the crafting of Biden's Build Back Better legislation. The Vermont independent originally wanted the bill to come in at around $6 trillion. The legislation was pared down to help garner the support of moderate Democrats in the 50-50 Senate. 

The Congressional Progressive Caucus wanted that legislation linked to the $1.2 trillion Senate infrastructure bill to ensure the former's passage. The House ultimately voted on the Senate version of the infrastructure bill first, which passed. Biden quickly signed it into law. 

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin announced last month that he was voting against the House-passed version of the Build Back Better Act. He has cited inflation hitting its highest level in nearly 40 years and other concerns over the cost of extending the expanded child tax credit.

"I've tried everything humanly possible," Manchin said. "I can’t get there."

Progressives expressed frustration over the decision to unlink the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act.

"When a handful of us in the House warned this would happen if Dem leaders gave Manchin everything he wanted 1st by moving [the Bipartisan Infrastrucutuere Framework] before BBB instead of passing together, many ridiculed our position," New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter. "Maybe they'll believe us next time. Or maybe people will just keep calling us naïve."

Manchin grew increasingly exasperated by the pressure he received from the progressive wing of his party to support Build Back Better.

"I knew where they were, and I knew what they could and could not do," he told a West Virginia radio station. "They just never realized it because they figured, surely to God, we can move one person, sure that we can badger and beat one person up. Surely we can get enough protesters to make that person uncomfortable enough [that] they'll just say, 'OK, I'll vote for anything, just quit.'" 

"I'm from West Virginia," Manchin reminded host Hoppy Kercheval. "I'm not from where they're from, and they can't just beat the living crap out of people and think they'll be submissive. Period." 

On Wednesday, Biden signaled that he supports breaking up the massive Build Back Better Act  into smaller legislative pieces, but a concrete proposal hasn't been put forth by the White House yet.

"I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now, and come back and fight for the rest later," Biden said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was asked about breaking up the mega-spending bill on Wednesday. He said the Senate would have to propose a new version that could pass with every Democrat on board. 

The original version of Build Back Better contained immigration reform provisions that the Senate parliamentarian ruled did not qualify for reconciliation, which would allow Democrats to pass the bill with only Democratic votes and avoid the filibuster. Progressives called on Senate Democratic leaders to override the parliamentarian's decision and pass the bill anyway, which ultimately did not occur. 

Last week, Biden came out in favor of changing Senate rules to permit Democrats to bypass the filibuster so their voting overhaul legislation could pass with a simple majority. Democratic leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have been pointing to the Republicans as the reason these bills wouldn't move forward. However, Manchin and Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema voted against changing the rules in the chamber.

Sanders has threatened to support a primary challenge against Sinema and Manchin. Pro-choice PAC Emily's List announced it wouldn't support Sinema if she opposed eliminating the filibuster.

The two Democratic holdouts argued that it would set a dangerous precedent going forward if senators made an exception to the Senate rules for voting rights legislation. 

Prior to the failed vote on the election overhaul bill, Biden said he hadn't reached out to Republicans like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney to negotiate the contents of the legislation. 

"Mitt Romney is a straight guy," the president said. "I was trying to make sure we got everybody on the same page in my party on this score. And I didn't call many Republicans at all.

Despite the setbacks and infighting within the party over the Build Back Better Act and election reform legislation, Democratic leaders claim to be satisfied with Biden's first year in office.

"Together, President Biden and the Democratic Congress have worked relentlessly over the last year to improve countless lives across the country," said a joint statement from Schumer and Pelosi on Thursday. "Fueled by our American Rescue Plan and the President's strong actions on the economy, Democrats have powered an historic economic recovery that has created a record 6.4 million new jobs, slashed the unemployment rate with the biggest single-year drop ever, from 6.2 percent to 3.9 percent, and helping sixteen million Americans off the unemployment rolls."