WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden may be on the verge of enacting a massive social spending plan that’s widely considered to be the crown jewel of his legislative agenda.
But the bill that he has expended much of his political capital on still might not be enough to motivate his party’s base.
As Biden nears the end of months-long congressional negotiations over a nearly $2 trillion budget bill, civil rights leaders and liberal activists are warning the president that he must also act on issues they say are urgent — especially voting rights — after he and the Democratic majority in Congress finish with spending legislation.
Absent progress there, dedicated Democrats— including many Black voters and grassroots progressives — won’t back the party’s candidates with the same level of energy as they did in recent campaigns during next year’s midterm elections, they say, no matter how many new climate and economic programs the president signs into law.
Those achievements are necessary, activists say, but not sufficient.
“I don’t know how I’m going to explain to Indivisible members across the country who spent five years of their life building this Democratic trifecta, with democracy on their mind, that we just didn’t get it done,” said Ezra Levin, co-founder of the progressive group Indivisible. “But then, please, knock on doors in 2022.”
The warning from Levin and other liberals strikes at a larger unknown for the White House. Will Biden’s legislative agenda — which also includes a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief measure and $1.2 trillion infrastructure investment the president signed into law — be enough to convince core Democratic voters to overlook stalled efforts on issues such as voting rights, police reform, gun control and immigration?
Many of the reforms advocates are pushing for in those policy areas would require at least 60 votes in an evenly divided Senate, which is unlikely, or unanimous support from the 50 senators who caucus with Democrats to end the legislative filibuster, which has been an issue of intense focus in the party but hasn’t gained enough traction.
“We find ourselves in a situation where, once this bill is passed, is that it? And is that acceptable?” said Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, an immigration advocacy group. “Is that acceptable for Congress, is that acceptable for this president, or not?”
It’s an open question that has taken on new urgency as Biden’s poll numbers have slipped amid haphazard congressional efforts to pass his legislative agenda and rising inflation that has sapped the public’s confidence in the economy.
The drop in support for Biden has come even from Democratic voters: A Fox News poll released this month found that 82% of Democrats approve of the president’s job performance, compared to 17% who do not. That is a meaningful drop in support from the sky-high approval ratings Biden received from the party faithful earlier this year.
Democracy for America CEO Yvette Simpson said some of the organization’s most dedicated activists are “checked out” of politics or have turned their attention to other causes. Biden would need to show he is leading on voting rights, criminal justice reform and other racial justice issues to reengage those voters, she said.
“We just can’t get the base excited because they continue to feel like promises weren’t kept to them,” Simpson said. “I think voting rights should have been a number one priority for him, and he should have at all costs made that the number one issue and he did not.”
Simpson said it would also help if Biden pushed Democrats to pass legislation that increases the wages of low-income Americans.
“They could care less about roads and bridges. They don’t care that Biden is working with Republicans,” she said. “This effort for bipartisanship, I think was a win for him, but I don’t know if it was a win for the part of the base that he’s going to need to get the additional help in the midterms.”
The White House has insisted for months that it remains focused on voting rights, even amid congressional negotiations on other aspects of the president’s agenda. Biden himself has repeatedly decried a surge of Republican-backed laws across the country that restrict voting, likening them to old “Jim Crow” prohibitions in the South.
Some liberal activists were heartened last month when Biden said during a televised town hall he would consider altering the filibuster to make changes to voting rights.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who has questioned whether Democrats have “the will to win” in the midterms, said his party can still pass voting reforms if the Senate embraces the proposed tweak to the filibuster rule.
“If we didn’t get anything done, I would be concerned, but time has not run out,” Clyburn said. “I still think we’re going to do it.”
Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison said the goodwill that Biden built with the party’s senators during the spending deal and infrastructure negotiations could help the president secure victories on voting rights and other issues.
“The hope that I have, is that with enough wins, and enough victories and enough positive feelings that you generate from those wins, that it makes it easier when the president really comes back to ask for support from the caucus,” Harrison said.
Democrats would need every one of their senators to vote for a change to Senate rules or find support within the Republican Party. At least two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have said they oppose altering the filibuster.
Liberal leaders acknowledge the political challenges a narrowly divided Senate and House present Biden.
“This 2020 win was no overwhelming majority. It’s not like in the Obama years,” said Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League. “That’s a reality check on politics that has nothing to do with will.”
But he said Democrats could pay a steep political price if they do not find a way to pass voting rights legislation.
“All of the suppression is not targeted at the Republican base, it’s targeted at the Democratic base,” Morial said. “So on democracy, do you stand up for your voters? Do you stand up for the people who brought you to the dance?”
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