• The San Juan Daily Star

Vulnerable Democrats, seeking distance from the left, offer a midterm agenda

Supporters urging Congress to pass the Build Back Better Act in December. The draft agenda embraces some of the most broadly popular health care initiatives of that plan.

By Jonathan Weisman

A cluster of House Democrats from conservative-leaning districts is circulating a reworked legislative agenda for the coming election season that would embrace some of President Joe Biden’s most popular initiatives and tackle rising prices while distancing lawmakers from the left’s most divisive ideas.

The plan, obtained by The New York Times, seeks to inoculate the most vulnerable Democrats from the culture wars pursued by Republicans trying to win back the congressional majority. Its existence underscores how successful Republicans have been at weaponizing issues like pandemic-related school closures and “defund the police” efforts against Democrats in politically competitive districts.

The draft agenda was written by Reps. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Steven Horsford of Nevada, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Dean Phillips of Minnesota and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan. It includes almost 75 bipartisan bills already drafted and broader bullet points such as “Combat Rising Costs for Food, Gas, Housing and Utilities,” “Reduce Prescription Drug Prices, Co-Pays and Deductibles” and “Fight Crime & Invest in Law Enforcement.”

Rather than proposing cuts to funding for police departments, for example, it suggests financing the hiring of additional officers, especially in rural and small-town departments — though it would also fund body cameras and training, demands from liberal critics of law enforcement. Taking on Republican efforts to end mask mandates and school closures, the agenda includes legislation to “reestablish faith in America’s public health system and ensure preparedness for future pandemics, so that our economy and schools can remain open.”

The plan avoids other items popular with progressives, such as a $15 minimum wage and a universal, single-payer “Medicare for All” insurance system, but it embraces some of the most broadly popular health care initiatives in Biden’s now-moribund Build Back Better Act: an agreement to allow Medicare to negotiate the prices of some of the most expensive drugs on the market and an expansion of Medicare to cover vision, dental and hearing care.

With their wafer-thin congressional majority and a president whose approval ratings are mired around 42%, Democrats are facing formidable headwinds in November’s midterm elections. The document, though stuffed with actual legislation, is more notable for its political message than for its policy details — in part because it omits any mention of how to pay for its initiatives.

Some of its headline initiatives are not backed by the legislation below those programs. The plan promotes “Combating the Climate Crisis,” for instance, but the bills listed on that topic address the reliability and resilience of the electricity grid, top concerns for climate change doubters.

But the agenda’s authors hope to at least revive a sense of momentum in a Democratic Congress that has entered the doldrums since enactment of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure law in November, followed by the Senate’s stymying of House-passed climate and social safety net legislation and a far-reaching voting rights bill.

It is no accident that the document is circulating just before Biden’s State of the Union address Tuesday, and the following week’s House Democratic “issues” retreat.

The dozens of bills listed in the agenda all have Democratic and Republican authors, many of them endangered either by anti-Democratic momentum or by challengers endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

One such bill, written by Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., would make permanent Medicare tele-health expansions undertaken during the pandemic. There is a diabetes prevention bill by Reps. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and Tom Rice of South Carolina, a Republican who, like Cheney, voted to impeach Trump. An expansion of tax-favored education savings accounts is co-sponsored by Spanberger and Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, another Republican who voted to impeach. Also included is a significant expansion of eligibility for child and adult nutrition programs, drafted by Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., and Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., facing a serious Trump-backed challenge for her impeachment vote.

There are even incentives for utilities to invest in cybersecurity written by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has raised the contempt of the left by blocking the social policy and climate change bill in the Senate, and refusing to join his party in changing the filibuster rule to pass voter protection legislation over Republican opposition.

But most striking is how the draft agenda takes on issues that appear to be dominating the campaign trail, even if they have not generated much debate on the floors of the House and the Senate.

To beat back inflation, one bill the group is pushing would “prohibit” foreign governments from participating in cartellike activities, a hit at OPEC that would have no real effect. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would be granted the authority to order refunds for natural gas bills “that are unjust, unreasonable, unduly discriminatory or preferential.” And assistance would be given to new and small meat processors to combat monopoly pricing from the few dominant meat processors, an effort already underway by the Biden administration.

Rising crime rates across the country would also receive attention, through an expansion of existing grants to local law enforcement, new safety requirements for ride-hailing companies, stronger reporting requirements for electronic communication service providers to help track child predators and a new federal crime designation for “porch pirates” who steal packages from home stoops.

One measure included in the agenda appears to accept the Republican talking point that the coronavirus was created in a laboratory in China, then covered up by the World Health Organization — assertions that have been challenged repeatedly by scientific researchers.

The Never Again International Outbreak Prevention Act, by Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and Conor Lamb, a centrist Democrat running for the Senate in Pennsylvania, “would provide accountability with respect to international reporting and monitoring of outbreaks of novel viruses and diseases, sanction bad actors and review the actions of the World Health Organization.”

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