Team Biden to wary Democrats: Our spending deal is really popular

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WASHINGTON — A memorandum from President Biden’s top pollsters now being circulated to Democrats on Capitol Hill shows broad support from Americans for the components of the Inflation Reduction Act, the ambitious spending package that, if passed, would resuscitate a White House domestic agenda that had appeared hopelessly stalled in recent months.

The document points, in particular, to a proposal for lowering prescription drug costs, which is unambiguously popular with voters regardless of their party affiliation.

“Democrats should confidently support these measures, and campaign on them aggressively, putting Republicans on defense,” says the two-page document, which was obtained by Yahoo News as it was being distributed by Building Back Together, a group that advocates for Biden’s agenda, to Democratic legislators in both chambers of Congress. The polling was conducted by John Anzalone and Matt Barreto, both of whose firms worked for Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign.

President Biden gestures with his hands as he speaks about the economy.
President Biden on July 28. (Susan Walsh/AP)

The Inflation Reduction Act is the product of secret negotiations between Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader in the Senate. Manchin, a centrist, helped doom an earlier iteration of Biden’s agenda, then known as Build Back Better, when he announced his opposition in late 2021. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a moderate Democrat from Arizona, joined Manchin, to the delight of Republicans and frustration of progressives.

The rebranded proposal is far more modest than Build Back Better, but its focus on climate change and health care addresses top Democratic concerns. The deal’s surprise emergence last week presented the White House with the tantalizing possibility of a major victory ahead of November’s midterm elections.

The proposal includes nearly $370 billion for climate change initiatives and over $60 billion for health care subsidies. It allows Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices. The spending is to be paid for through higher taxes on corporations.

Sen. Joe Manchin stands in front of microphones, speaking to reporters at the Capitol.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks about the agreement at the Capitol on Monday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The bill’s critics argue that the federal government should avoid new spending initiatives while inflation remains a top worry among American households. The bill’s very name — Inflation Reduction Act — is an obvious attempt to counter that very argument. The memorandum from Building Back Together makes the same point to congressional Democrats wary of being branded as profligate spenders at a moment that seems to invite thriftiness.

“Voters agreed that the best way to combat rising prices was by addressing the high costs of health care,” Anzalone and Barreto write. While gas and food prices have received the most attention, high medical costs are a reality for millions of people. The poorest Americans devote a third of their incomes to medical costs.

The polling conducted by Anzalone and Barreto found that 62% of Americans polled in battleground states supported a bill effectively identical to the proposal unveiled by Manchin and Schumer last week. The survey was conducted in June, weeks before the results of the two senators’ negotiations were made public.

“These are all incredibly popular things that people want and believe are good economic policies,” Anzalone told Yahoo News in a telephone interview.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer stands behind a podium and points to a reporter who wants to ask a question at a news conference on Capitol Hill.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer at a news conference on Capitol Hill on July 28. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Lowering drug prices, Anzalone and Barreto write, was “overwhelmingly popular,” supported by 82% of all battleground-state respondents — including 74% of Republicans. A 2021 study by the RAND Corporation found that Americans pay about two and a half times more than people do in other countries for the same drugs.

Polling conducted jointly by Yahoo News and YouGov has shown similarly strong support for the Inflation Reduction Act, with 61% of respondents supporting the prescription drug provision when that is described as the bill’s key feature, and 47% in favor of the bill when the legislation is depicted as primarily addressing climate change.

That poll, and others, have been avidly shared by the White House, which has depicted Republican opposition as a sign of the GOP’s ideological extremism and increasing isolation from the American mainstream. At a news briefing on Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre charged that Republicans wanted to “protect tax welfare for the wealthy and corporations.”

Anzalone told Yahoo News that Biden’s agenda “hasn’t decreased in popularity one iota” since it was introduced — in different guise, and with more spending — last year.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaking at the White House daily briefing.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre at the White House daily briefing on Wednesday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

“This plan is missing things that people wish could have been in there,” Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson acknowledged. But by devoting $300 billion to deficit reduction alongside the health care and green energy proposals, he added, there is something for moderates and progressives alike to celebrate.

House progressives have indicated that they will support the Inflation Reduction Act without engaging in the kind of complex dealmaking that some believe doomed Build Back Better. It is less clear if Sinema, who was not involved in the Manchin-Schumer negotiations, will offer her crucial endorsement. Democrats are optimistic but have done little to hide their anxiety.

The deal between Manchin and Schumer comes at a time when calls for Biden not to run for reelection in 2024 are growing louder — even as he notches legislative victories. Passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which would require a parliamentary process called reconciliation to avoid the filibuster, would amount to a major win for the White House, one that would seemingly strengthen his standing with skeptics within his own party.

“Zawahri is dead and reconciliation is alive,” Ferguson told Yahoo News, referencing Biden’s Monday announcement that an American drone had killed Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of al-Qaida, in Afghanistan.

President Biden, standing on a balcony at the White House, announces that a U.S. airstrike killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
Biden on Monday announces that a U.S. airstrike has killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri in Afghanistan. (Jim Watson/Pool via AP)

Barreto and Anzalone referenced other polls to bolster their argument, in what appears to be an effort to convince congressional Democrats that a rare consensus has been reached. “Ahead of this fall’s election, passing this legislation is good policy and good politics for Democrats,” they write.

The plethora of polling is meant to stiffen the backbones of Democrats at a time when the president is highly unpopular. “This has been a slow flight and a fast landing. Members want to know that Americans have their back when they’re going to take a vote to have Americans’ back,” Ferguson told Yahoo News.

He added that opposition from powerful energy and medical lobby groups makes legislators skittish about voting for proposals that enjoy popular support. But although margins in the House are narrow and margins in the Senate even narrower, Democrats remain confident that ideological concerns and political considerations can both be overcome.

A spokesperson for Building Back Together urged lawmakers to move “swiftly.”