The wrenching intraparty battle taking place among Democrats on Capitol Hill is a unique, perhaps historical, reckoning — but it is also the most Groundhog Day of Washington crises: a frenzy of last-second action preceded by epic procrastination.
The stakes are immense: President Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, another $3.5 trillion toward human capital and social welfare programs, the fate of the progressive agenda and, quite possibly, the viability of a fragile Democratic governing coalition.
Which explains why Democrats have delayed the current confrontation like it was the mother of all dentist’s appointments.
Just how much they procrastinated became all too apparent on Thursday. The declaration by Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia that liberals needed to pare $2 trillion from their social spending plan to get his vote stunned many Democrats, who had assumed their leaders had gotten much closer to a deal since July, when a preliminary agreement on infrastructure was announced.
“I am trying to get something over the finish line at the last minute this week too, so I get it, I really do,” wrote Luppe B. Luppen, a liberal lawyer and commentator wrote on Twitter Thursday night. “But we all would’ve been so much better off if the events of today in Congress had happened on like august 5th.”
Serious negotiations did not really hit stride until the past two weeks, according to congressional and White House aides. The intense round of talks intended to close a gap of many hundreds of billions between warring Democratic factions began in just the past 48 hours, as the party crashed through Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s self-imposed deadline for a deal.
The slow-walk, fast-finish pace — however maddening to all involved — is part of a venerable legislative pattern that dates back decades.
Most of the biggest budget packages and sweeping legislative deals in recent history have been the subject of intense 11th-hour horse-trading, very often between Democratic progressives and party conservatives. (The historian Robert Caro has filled volumes with details of Lyndon Johnson’s high-pressure tactics in ramming through civil rights legislation both as a Senate leader and as president.)
But the proliferation of dramatic, last-second deals has increased dramatically in the hyperpartisan environment of the past quarter-century. That has made every issue that requires bipartisan cooperation a choke point, and matters like budget-making and fiscal policy, once routine, have become subject to anguished last-minute negotiations, giving individual lawmakers — like Mr. Manchin — immense power to veto, alter and delay.
Like severe weather, the legislative procrastination is getting worse. Over the last decade, raising the debt limit, once a pro forma vote, has become an issue of heated contention, often pushing the country to the brink of crisis.
Spending battles, even when it comes to more mundane yearly budget negotiations, are even harder to resolve. They are now always settled at the 11th hour, or far past deadline — as evidenced by 22 government shutdowns since 1980 — with each faction seeking to leverage fear over delays and shutdowns to their advantage.
The longest was the most recent, a 35-day shutdown from late 2018 to early 2019 that occurred when former President Donald J. Trump tried, and failed, to pay for his plan to build a wall on the border with Mexico. But both President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama presided over shutdowns of two to three weeks. On Thursday, just hours before the midnight deadline, Congress approved and Mr. Biden signed a spending bill that extends federal funding through early December.
But the two measures being discussed this week are even more monumental, transformative and politically charged. And at the center of it all is Mr. Biden, a former senator who views the upper chamber as a benign deliberative body that has the right to take its time. He is not prone to make the kind of the lapel-clutching demands of Mr. Manchin that President Johnson would have, but the pressure on him is increasing.
Thus far, the pace of negotiations has been dictated by the legislative leaders like Ms. Pelosi, who is eager to prove things are moving ahead but unable as of yet to control the outcome.
She spent much of Thursday insisting she would get an infrastructure bill to the House floor before midnight.
As Thursday dragged into Friday, Ms. Pelosi conceded the vote would be delayed, telling reporters “we’re not trillions of dollars apart” and cheerfully asserting “there will be a vote today.”