By Manu Raju, Alex Rogers and Melanie Zanona, CNN
The US Chamber of Commerce last year endorsed 23 vulnerable freshman House Democrats — the most in at least a decade — and enraged House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy and other top Republicans who accused their long-time big business allies of heresy.
A year later, the Chamber is now lobbying hard against the nearly $2 trillion centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s agenda, the Build Back Better bill, which those Democrats who are still in Congress backed when it passed the House this month along party lines. Now it’ll be extremely difficult for those same Democrats to earn the powerful business lobby’s coveted endorsement in the 2022 midterms.
“Earlier this year the Chamber was clear: reconciliation was a deal breaker,” said Ashlee Rich Stephenson, the group’s senior political strategist, referring to the sweeping bill. “You have to earn the endorsement every cycle. … Just because maybe you were supported once doesn’t mean you will be next time.”
As the Republican coalition frayed over Biden’s sweeping infrastructure law, which the Chamber backed, and remains divided over former President Donald Trump’s role in the party, one element has united them in the run-up to the 2022 midterms: The Democratic bill to dramatically reshape the nation’s social safety net. Conservative outside groups are planning to dump tens of millions in attack ads against vulnerable Democrats for supporting the bill, while McCarthy is trying to coalesce a conference often at loggerheads over strategy to focus squarely on the massive measure.
The two parties are already engaged in intense planning and strategy sessions to message the bill in the midterm elections, even before the Democratic-controlled Senate aims to pass it before Christmas.
With the sharp rise in consumer prices, recent supply chain shortages, and the political fallout from the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, Republicans are growing extremely confident about their chances to take back the House and Senate in 2022.
“Oh, I’ve felt good about flipping the House since the beginning of the year,” McCarthy, who has predicted the GOP could pick up more than 60 seats, told CNN. “I should buy a bigger House.”
Republicans have a number of reasons to be hopeful. At least 17 House Democrats are not seeking reelection in 2022 after deciding to retire or find another job. The party out of power typically picks up seats during a president’s first midterm election cycle, and the redistricting process could benefit the GOP next year as well. And they now need just a handful of seats to take back a chamber where Democrats hold a 221-213 advantage.
“We’ll win the majority,” said Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee. “I’ll tell you that.”
Top Democrats, however, are trying to convince their members that the majority is far from lost.
At a closed-door meeting at the headquarters of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee before the Thanksgiving recess, DCCC Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney of New York walked his caucus through internal poll numbers he said showed Democrats standing in an improving position in their frontline districts, according to attendees.
Among the issues important to voters: dealing with the supply chain and bolstering manufacturing, taxing large corporations, and repairing roads and bridges, Democratic leaders told their members during their presentation. And the DCCC showed how some key wedge issues — abortion, the debt ceiling and prescription drug costs — could benefit their vulnerable members if they message them appropriately.
Speaking to her caucus, Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat and member of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership team, was blunt: “We will keep the House,” she said, according to an attendee. Pelosi responded: “Debbie’s right.”
Democratic leaders are worried about a replay of 2010, when they struggled to explain the Affordable Care Act’s benefits and lost the House that fall. They are now instructing their members to have at least five events each in their districts to explain the elements of their sweeping agenda — the Build Back Better bill and the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law — by January as a start.
“People will know what’s going to be in it,” Dingell said in an interview. “You will begin to see the impact of some of it, on childcare, help to seniors. … Hopefully those things will move relatively quickly, and we need to do a good job of telling people what’s in the bill.”
Republicans, meanwhile, see an opportunity to define what’s in the bill and have ramped up their messaging operation in recent weeks. The Republican Study Committee, the largest conservative caucus in Congress, recently circulated a lengthy list of talking points to its members outlining 42 policies in the package that they claim will “wreck America.”
The House bill would expand the social safety net and help fight climate change, while establishing free preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, provide four weeks of paid family and medical leave, provide subsidies for health care and new tax credits for clean energy and electric vehicles. It would also allow the federal government to negotiate the prices of certain prescription drugs for older Americans on Medicare and support access to affordable housing. It would be partially paid for by tax increases on corporations and millionaires.
Some progressives are upset that the bill doesn’t include other popular proposals, including adding dental and vision benefits to Medicare and free community college, while centrists in the Senate are seeking to trim the bill even further.
What remains a challenge for Democrats: Implementing many of these proposals before the 2022 midterms, especially as negotiations in the Senate over the larger bill continue to drag out. And while the infrastructure law took effect earlier this month, it takes time to pump money into public works projects and even longer for the work to be completed.
“Our job now as lawmakers is to make sure the money we passed in the infrastructure bill is not only getting into the states, but it’s starting to be spent,” Dingell said. She added: “I think it’s important that people who didn’t vote for it don’t take credit for delivering money they didn’t vote for.”
GOP sees Build Back Better as perfect target
Just 13 House Republicans ultimately voted for the infrastructure law, which McCarthy lobbied his members to oppose. But it was those GOP lawmakers’ support that was essential to getting the bill signed into law, a dynamic that continues to divide the party.
Rep. Chip Roy — a Texas Republican who recently tangled with McCarthy during a private conference meeting over infrastructure — expressed concern that the GOP defections undermine the Republican message.
“The bottom line is, we’ve got actually a whole lot of unity against the garbage the Democrats are putting out,” Roy said. “But that unity only goes so far when some break and go help them pass it.”
During a recent conference meeting, McCarthy attempted to quell brewing anger on the right over the passage of the infrastructure bill by urging Republicans not to attack each other and instead focus their ire on the Build Back Better package, according to sources in the room.
Indeed, the House GOP’s campaign arm sees the Democrats’ massive social safety net bill as the perfect embodiment of the themes that they’ve been harping on all year: rising inflation, big government and “tax-and-spend liberals.” They believe the culmination of those issues will help deliver Republicans the majority, even as many components of the economic package remain popular with voters.
The NRCC circulated a memo this month with internal polling showing that the social safety net bill is underwater in certain battleground districts, while Republicans hold an edge over Democrats on the generic ballot — another key indicator of a party’s prospects in the midterms.
Dan Conston, the president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to McCarthy that is devoted to helping Republicans take back the House, noted that the average midterm pick-up in the first cycle of a president’s term is 28 seats. “If you look at historical averages, that is a good indication of what is possible,” he said.
Conston added Biden’s weakened approval rating is “the canary in the coal mine for Democrats.”
The conservative American Action Network ran a $14 million ad campaign this fall urging House Democrats to oppose the Build Back Better Act, according to spokesman Calvin Moore, calling the sweeping $1.9 trillion economic legislation Pelosi’s “spending spree.” Conston said the bill will be a “real liability” for vulnerable Democrats since “people already connect this overspending to inflation.”
But Democrats point to analysis that shows that the bill won’t make inflation worse — and are betting that prices on goods ultimately will come down as the midterm season heats up and as the Covid-19 pandemic eases.
Yet they agree that they need to intensify their efforts countering the GOP offensive. House Majority Forward, a nonprofit affiliated with the super PAC House Majority PAC, has already spent about $8 million to advance Biden’s agenda but pledged this month to spend $20 million more.
“There’s no guarantee that doing hard things will pay off politically,” Maloney, the DCCC chairman, said in an interview. “We believe it will pay off in what we have achieved — and remind voters the other side will have zero ideas to help America.”
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CNN’s Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.