In Washington, Even Softball and Pups Can’t Escape Partisan Sniping

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Yesterday afternoon saw legislators with their dogs mingling in the Hart Senate Office Building’s packed lobby for the annual Halloween dog costume competition. It is usually a casual, bipartisan event, but this year it was more intimate. The host, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, dressed his ‘doodle in a purple wig and a tunic emblazoned with “dangerous creature,” a nod to a top Sen. Kyrsten Sinema once wore. Another dog appeared in a construction vest promising to “Bark Back Better.” And yet another dog wore a send-up of the gown Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez wore to the exclusive Met gala in New York that demanded higher taxes for the rich.
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Although it may sound silly, this speaks volumes about the current edge Washington is experiencing as Democrats move closer to an election. YesThis morning, the twin massive spending plans were announced. To seal the deal, President Joe Biden told Congress that his presidency was now in his hands. “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week,” Biden told lawmakers behind closed doors during a session participants described as part plea and part confessional.

Even by D.C. standards, October has come to an end and the temperatures are running unseasonably high. The negotiations seem to have ended on the so-called soft infrastructure bill, which remains incomplete. The partisanship is at its highest point. Republicans are indifferent to Democrats’ ambitious plans to knit a social safety net. Democrats still debate whether it is better to accept defeat than continue fighting.

There are two components at play in this situation, each independent but interdependent. First, a bipartisan plan for fixing roads and bridges. It has a cost of approximately $550 billion. A tranche of COVID-19 reprogrammed spending will bring it to $1.2 trillion. The Senate passed this measure with unanimous support.

However, House Democrats have not considered it until they reach a compromise on a bigger, more comprehensive follow-up budget package. This would allow them to implement progressive ideas, but won’t be able to win a Republican vote. That’s been held up by two Democratic Senators who say they are weary of spending. Biden, in his remarks today, acknowledged Democrats’ ambitions have been pared down significantly in the effort to get the pair onboard. “No one got everything they wanted, including me,” Biden said at the White House.

Biden’s new spending plan seems to have reached $1.85 trillion. This leaves out certain goals such as paid family leave or changes in drug pricing. The package’s scaled down size meant that Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia and Sinema, Arizona, were not willing to sign on to it. This is a worrying prospect for Democrats, who already pushed back to satisfy their demand to reduce the deficit to $6 trillion to $3.5 billion and to make sure they are still a viable option.

For the uninitiated, this fight may seem like another battle over policies and spending. This fight has immense significance for all those who are familiar with the subject. Biden’s entire legacy may end up hinging on these efforts. He ran for President as a milquetoast grandfather who could get the rowdy kids to play nice but is facing intransigence from not just Manchin and Sinema but also progressive lawmakers who are telling him that they won’t compromise merely for the sake of a win.

Biden is now in the air, heading first to Italy and then to a global climate summit in Scotland where he’s expected to sell the environmental spending sketched into these plans as a sign of U.S. commitment to reducing emissions. Democrats are looking for the last chance to govern in the next ten years, as they have only the narrowest of margins.

It all adds up to a difficult moment for Biden and his party—and the stress is showing around town. Hours after the dog show trolling, at a playground near the Capitol, female lawmakers and the “Bad News Babes” in the congressional press corps faced off for their annual good-natured night of charity softball. There was no hiding the frustration felt by lawmakers on the field. Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democratic senator from Minnesota, took advantage of Manchin’s nagging by being one the announcers for the play-by–play games. When Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, mustered a hit that tied the game, Klobuchar noted that she was the “other Senator” from West Virginia. The score, Klobuchar noted, was “tied, just like the Senate.”

Sinema, a noted athlete who completes triathlons, appeared to be a no-show despite being on the congressional team’s roster. She’s been dealing with a foot injury of late, which may explain her absence at an event that otherwise brought the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelsoi, Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and their top deputies to an event that is typically one of D.C.’s most convivial evenings.

As aides scramble to write the agreement and Biden flew to Europe, frustration shows no sign of abating back at the Capitol. The fact that D.C. couldn’t push pause on politics for a pet parade or a softball game signals just how much trouble this town is facing.

Biden might still win. But it’s not one that feels particularly rewarding or inclusive. The alternative, at least for Democrats, was defeat—and a dire standing heading into next week’s nationalized race for Virginia Governor and next year’s midterm elections.

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