Virginia loss highlights some Democrats' uncertainty over Biden strategy

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Capitol dome is seen in Washington
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By Trevor Hunnicutt, Jarrett Renshaw and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The political rebuke voters delivered to Democrats in Virginia has not given the White House second thoughts about President Joe Biden's ambitious policy agenda but is making some Democrats in swing states nervous.

Since the Republican victory in the Virginia governor's race on Tuesday, the White House message to Democrats facing competitive elections has been simple: Pass the social spending and infrastructure bills soon, or face defeat in the more consequential battle to keep control of the House of Representatives and Senate in 2022, according to administration officials and allied Democrats.

Voters are "upset and uncertain," Biden said on Wednesday, when asked about the Virginia result.

Democratic congressional leaders are seeking to pass a $1.75 trillion budget bill and $1 trillion infrastructure bill this week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi answered: "No" when a reporter asked whether the Virginia outcome would cause her to throttle back on Biden's "Build Back Better" legislation.

There was still no action on possible votes on Thursday, as worries persisted, especially among moderate Democrats, about whether the bills include the right mix of social spending, taxes and climate programs to provide political cover in next year's elections.

Democratic Representative Jared Golden of Maine is one of several moderates who will not vote for the social spending bill without an estimate confirming it is fiscally responsible from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

He expressed concern on Wednesday that the bill's tax provisions, including a credit for parents, are not sufficiently targeted to low-income people.

Centrist Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, a major roadblock to getting Biden's agenda passed, reiterated on Wednesday that Democrats should "take our time" on the spending bill, which has already been cut back from an original $3.5 trillion price tag.

A New Jersey Democratic consultant who works on congressional races said Democrats "need to pass infrastructure as soon as humanly possible and start from scratch on a spending bill and run as far away from the left as they can.

"If somebody has, especially in New Jersey, the gumption or wherewithal to side with Manchin, they are going to be a lot better off," said the consultant, requesting anonymity in order to speak candidly.

New Jersey Democratic Governor Phil Murphy won re-election on Tuesday in an unexpectedly close contest in a state where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by more than 1 million.


For their part, liberal Democratic lawmakers are telling the White House they want more social programs and tax hikes on the wealthy in the spending package as well as action on voting rights, immigration and gun rights even if it means barreling past Republicans, who are united in opposition to such measures.

An even more vocal group of Democratic moderates has been in regular touch with White House policy and political aides amid concerns that while many of the proposals poll well, the sheer size of the package could give Republicans political ammunition at the polls next year.

Still, most Democrats expressed confidence publicly in the Biden agenda's power to improve the party's political standing once it is passed.

In a New Jersey district that Republican then-President Donald Trump narrowly carried in 2020, Democratic Representative Andy Kim said constituents are focused on the coronavirus pandemic, the need to repair 40 structurally deficient bridges, delivery of broadband services to rural areas and "how do we get back to work."

He said in an interview that the latter issue ties directly into Biden's proposed social investments that include federal benefits to help defray the high costs of childcare so that parents can hold down jobs.

Democratic Representative Matt Cartwright, whose Pennsylvania district is considered a toss-up next year, said that once the two bills are enacted and voters realize the benefits from them, poll numbers will rise for Biden and congressional Democrats.

"The current issues are evanescent," Cartwright said. "They go away. By the time of the 2022 election, they will be a distant and dim memory."

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Jarrett Renshaw and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Heather Timmons and Peter Cooney)