Democrats’ Spending Fight Carries High Stakes for Their Candidates

Failure of moderates and progressives to reach a deal would fuel Republican attacks on their competence — with consequences as soon as November in Virginia, and in the midterms next year.

By Jonathan Martin

WASHINGTON — With President Biden’s approval ratings falling below 50 percent after the most trying stretch of his young administration, pushing through his ambitious legislative agenda has taken on a new urgency for Democratic lawmakers.

Recognizing that a president’s popularity is the best indicator for how his party will fare in the midterm elections, Democrats are confronting a stark prospect: If Mr. Biden doesn’t succeed in the halls of Congress this fall, it could doom his party’s majorities at the polls next fall.

Not that such a do-or-die dilemma is itself sufficient to stop Democrats’ intraparty squabbling, which the president on Friday termed a “stalemate.” Divisions between moderates and liberals over the substance, the price tag and even the legislative timing of Mr. Biden’s twin priorities, a bipartisan public works bill and broader social welfare legislation, could still undermine the proposals.

But it is increasingly clear to Democratic officials that beyond fully taming the still-raging pandemic, the only way Mr. Biden can rebound politically — and the party can retain its tenuous grip on power in the Capitol — is if he and they are able to hold up tangible achievements to voters.

“For us to be successful in the midterm elections next year, tens of millions of Americans need to see that giving Democrats the ability to pass big bills makes a difference in their lives,” said Senator Christopher A. Coons of Delaware, a close Biden ally, pointing to the infrastructure bill and elements of the second, broader measure like subsidized child care and college tuition aid.

A year, added Mr. Coons, “is a long time. If we can deliver things that matter in people’s lives, we will be successful.”

That’s little comfort, however, to the Democrat facing the most competitive election of this year.

Voting is already underway in the Virginia governor’s race, and with Election Day just five weeks away, the race between former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, and the business executive Glenn Youngkin has grown closer, in part because of Mr. Biden’s dip in the polls.

In an interview, the rarely subtle Mr. McAuliffe underlined the risk posed by congressional inaction, all but demanding that lawmakers act.

“Voters didn’t send Democrats to Washington to sit around and chitty-chat all day,” said Mr. McAuliffe, himself a former national party chair. “They need to get this done.”

Voters, he said, want “to see competence; they want to see people doing their jobs.”

Mr. McAuliffe, who is in a dead heat with Mr. Youngkin in public and private surveys, is close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a number of White House officials. He and his advisers have been blunt with Biden aides about the closeness of the governor’s race and have argued that the souring political environment for Democrats is the reason that the contest has grown more competitive, according to party officials familiar with the conversations.

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