Democrats, Stung by Electoral Losses, Press Forward on Biden Agenda

Disappointed by a loss in Virginia and a closer-than-expected race in New Jersey, Democrats were working toward quick action on key bills to show they could govern.,

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WASHINGTON — Smarting from an off-year electoral rebuke, congressional Democrats pushed forward on Wednesday toward House votes this week on nearly $3 trillion worth of social policy, infrastructure and climate change programs — but with a deep new worry after Tuesday’s stunning losses: Would a legislative victory help or hurt their political standing?

The day after a defeat in Virginia’s governor’s race and a too-close-to-call race in the Democratic stronghold of New Jersey, the party’s representatives in Congress toiled to keep recriminations at a minimum. But centrist and moderate Democrats grumbled that the party’s left flank had held back final passage of what they considered the most popular part of the agenda, a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill.

Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who campaigned hard for Terry McAuliffe, only to see him lose, said, “What I heard when I was out campaigning for the ticket was, ‘Hey, you guys got the White House, the Senate, the House. When are you going to get more things done?’ I mean only in Washington could people think that it is a smart strategy to take a once-in-a-generation investment in infrastructure and prevent your president from signing that bill into law. And that’s somehow a good strategy?”

Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, added: “We have a proven piece of legislation in the infrastructure bill that should have been done — we should have taken that. But you know, that’s water over the dam now.”

Liberal lawmakers were not about to accept that criticism from Mr. Manchin, who continued to be the main impediment to passage of a separate $1.85 trillion social safety net and climate change bill that they want approved before giving their votes for the public works measure.

But virtually all Democrats came away from the sweeping defeats in Virginia and what appeared to be a narrow escape for New Jersey’s Democratic governor, Philip Murphy, agreeing that the imperative now was to pass both bills as quickly as possible to prove their party could govern.

Hanging over the endeavor was a deep sense of dread among Democrats — reinforced by the results on Tuesday — that their prospects for keeping control of Congress in the midterm elections next year were dwindling by the day, amid President Biden’s sagging approval rating and widespread discontent with the direction of the country.

“The No. 1 concern voters have raised with me over the last several weeks has been inability of Congress and government in general to get things done at a time of great need for the country,” Representative Tom Malinowski, a Democrat in a swing district in New Jersey. “So the best thing we can do in Congress is to pass these damned bills, immediately.”

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Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in a closely contested race for Virginia governor.Credit…Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times

To that end, Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered the House Rules Committee on Wednesday to take up and approve a final draft of the social policy and climate bill by day’s end. And she injected a twist that indicated that Democrats were in no mood to pull back on their ambitious agenda in response to the disappointing election results, asking the committee to add back in four weeks of paid family and medical leave that had been removed at Mr. Manchin’s insistence.

That was a break from her stated policy of only bringing before the House a bill that she knew could pass the Senate, where Democrats cannot afford to lose a single vote from their party given the chamber’s even partisan split.

“Today is another momentous day in our historic effort to make the future better for the American people, for the children, to build back better with women, to save the planet,” Ms. Pelosi wrote in a letter to Democrats outlining the plan.

Republicans honed their lines of attack off the successful campaign of Glenn Youngkin, the private equity executive and political neophyte who captured the governorship of Virginia by focusing heavily on education and the grievances of parents unhappy with how school districts have responded to the pandemic.

Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, who is in charge of House Republican messaging, convened a round table on education on Wednesday to try to take Mr. Youngkin’s message national. Republicans made clear they would go after two of the biggest and most popular provisions in the social policy bill — universal prekindergarten and generous child care support — by saying they were schemes to nationalize early childhood education and force-feed left-wing pedagogy to youngsters.

Ms. Stefanik said children had been “forced to remain masked and distanced from their peers,” and exposed to “inappropriate material” on race and gender.

“Virginians spoke loud and clear last night that parental rights is an issue we can run on and win on,” she said. “Glenn Youngkin ran on education, and he won on education.”

Democrats, though, appeared confident they could weather that line of attack, by emphasizing the benefits of the programs created by their legislation, against which Republicans are united in opposition.

“Oh, I welcome that fight,” said Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania. “They’re saying that we shouldn’t help families pay for child care and have more three- and four-year olds go to pre-K? Please say that, Republicans. Please say that.”

But Mr. Warner was more circumspect. Democrats, he said, had been right to shower school districts with coronavirus pandemic relief over the last 18 months, but they now need to consider how that has fed into Republican accusations of the federal government centralizing control over how schools handled the pandemic and what they teach children.

“I have not met a Virginia educator or parent anywhere that doesn’t think that kind of relief was appropriate as we come out of Covid,” he said. But, he added, “I’ve got to acknowledge that Glenn Youngkin tapped into concerns about education at the local level. He touched a nerve, and I think those of us on the Democratic side need to sit back and think about how we address that.”

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