The prevailing story of the Democrats since the start of Joe Biden’s presidency has been one of struggle and setback. Sweeping into office with a Capitol Hill majority and a bold agenda, Biden and his party quickly hit a brick wall: After passing significant Covid-19 relief, major pieces of the legislative platform faltered amid Republican — and some Democratic — opposition; the right-wing Supreme Court took a sledgehammer to Roe v. Wade and fettered the federal government’s ability to address some of the most pressing issues of our time; and the antidemocratic headwinds unleashed by Donald Trump seemed to blow stronger, rather than weaker, following his 2020 defeat. In this telling, Biden and the Democrats are well-intentioned, but largely overmatched, and on the cusp of an electoral shellacking in November that could put democracy itself on life support.
There’s a great deal of truth to all that. But there’s another story of the last year and a half, one that may not be reflected in polls but that is no less accurate: In this iteration, Biden and his broad, sometimes uneasy coalition of Democrats — while facing down cascading crises and the relentless forces of Trumpism — have navigated an impressive number of significant, substantive laws through the treacherous waters of a divided congress. COVID relief. Infrastructure. Gun safety. And now, the Inflation Reduction Act, the historic climate, health, and tax bill that passed the Senate in a party-line reconciliation vote Sunday and heads to the Democratic-held House this week. “It’s been a long, tough, and winding road,” Schumer said in a victory lap of a press conference Sunday, after Vice President Kamala Harris cast a tie-breaking vote to move the package through the upper chamber. “At last, we’ve arrived, and we are elated.”
“We’ve changed the world,” he added.
Overstating things? Perhaps just a little. Like the Democrats’ other big legislative accomplishments since taking over early last year, their signature domestic agenda only made it through after it was significantly scaled back — first by West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who cut the surprise deal with Schumer after helping to kill the far more ambitious Build Back Better bill, and then by Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, whose corporate concerns had to be taken into consideration to get her stamp of approval. This, as in their previously passed bills this congress, is a compromise; it will not, on its own, meet America’s climate goals, or mend the country’s broken healthcare system, or smooth out its festering inequalities. But it is a major step in the right direction — and this is now a Senate that has passed the largest infrastructure bill in years, the first gun safety bill in decades, and the largest climate investment ever. “It’s a historic climate bill, and it wasn’t on the scoreboard one month ago,” Senator Ed Markey, a progressive from Massachusetts, told the New York Times. “It is not all that we wanted, but it was what we need to begin this effort to lead the rest of the world.”
This achievement doesn’t negate the setbacks that have occurred over the past 19 months; the threats to Americans’ rights and to the democratic process continue to mount, and until those are extinguished, it’ll be hard to feel like things are really heading in the right direction. But in outmaneuvering Mitch McConnell, Biden and Schumer have added another huge legislative victory to their collection, which has been perhaps under-appreciated amid the constant chatter about the president’s poor approval ratings, his party’s disillusionment, and the looming return of Republican rule. “I ran for president promising to make government work for working families again,” Biden said in a statement after the Senate vote. “That is what this bill does — period.”
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It remains to be seen what more they’ll be able to do before the midterms; Nancy Pelosi is expected to pass the Inflation Reduction Act through House this week and send it to Biden’s desk, and Schumer is likely to take up measures to protect marriage equality and to reform the Electoral Count Act when the Senate returns in September. But they’re unlikely to get much more than that done before the election this fall — especially with Republicans, smarting from the Inflation Reduction Act vote, even less likely to cooperate with them — and it’s an open question if these accomplishments can help them retain their majority in an election season that appears to favor the GOP. For now, though, they have the momentum: “It’s a game-changer,” Schumer said of the bill on the Senate floor Sunday. “It’s a turning point. And it’s been a long time in coming.”
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