Democrats Hit the Road to Sell Big Spending Bills as Republicans Attack

LAWSON, Colo. — Standing alongside Clear Creek, a popular white-water rafting destination in this gateway to the Rocky Mountains west of Denver, Senator Michael Bennet delivered his pitch for $60 billion in new spending to protect the state’s forests and watersheds against recurring fires and their widespread impact.

“It sounds like a lot of money,” conceded Mr. Bennet, Democrat of Colorado, as a group of officials and business leaders nodded in agreement. “But it is what we spend in five years fighting forest fires.”

While $60 billion is indeed a big price tag, $3.5 trillion is much bigger. That is the total cost of the budget blueprint Democrats muscled through the Senate and House last month, and hope to transform into a bill President Biden can sign in the coming weeks as they fight off Republican attacks on the size and scope of the measure — and some sticker shock on their own side as well.

Calculating that voters might be more receptive if they understand the tangible benefits of the emerging measure, Democrats have embarked on an elaborate nationwide sales pitch for the expansive budget plan and a related $1 trillion bipartisan public works measure to win over their constituents and others around the nation.

Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent of Vermont overseeing the development of the economic package as chairman of the Budget Committee, spent three days traveling across the Midwest, explaining the policy ambitions of the Democratic majority before hundreds of people in Republican-leaning districts.

The Democratic National Committee just concluded a multistate “Build Back Better” bus tour. Participants extolled the virtues of Democratic governance, trying to show voters in places like Arizona, the Carolinas, Michigan, Nevada, Texas and Wisconsin the real-life ramifications of the bills yet to pass and measures already approved, such as the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief legislation enacted this year over unanimous Republican opposition. Other Democrats are making similar appeals and pushing the legislation on their social media accounts.

“At the end of the day, these are real-world things that will have a huge impact on how people will live their lives in a way that we have not seen in policy from the federal government in a very long time,” said Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a regular on the bus tour.

But Democrats are not going to have an open field to make their case. Congressional Republicans are solidly lined up against the budget proposal, which Democrats plan to push through unilaterally using a maneuver known as reconciliation. Together with conservative advocacy groups, they are already on the attack, using the plan as fund-raising fodder and airing ads in the states and districts of vulnerable Democrats in Congress, urging them to oppose a measure that will require complete Democratic unity to pass the evenly split Senate.

For instance, Senator Todd Young, an Indiana Republican up for re-election, noted in a fund-raising appeal that Mr. Sanders made a stop in Indiana to push a “reckless liberal wish list budget” and warned that the cost would “hurt American families.”

Republicans say the partisan nature of the bill, which is to be considered under special rules that exempt it from a filibuster, as well as the huge amount of spending and the inclusion of special interest provisions will turn off swing voters in the suburbs who propelled Mr. Biden to victory and helped Democrats hold the House and win the Senate in 2020.

They argue that potential backlash to the bill, combined with dissatisfaction with the Biden administration’s handling of Afghanistan and the pandemic, is creating a receptive environment for Republicans campaigning to reclaim control of Congress in 2022.

“The American people are not buying what they are selling,” said Kevin McLaughlin, a veteran Republican campaign operative who is running a campaign against the budget bill through the Common Sense Leadership Fund. The group began airing ads last week aimed at Senators Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Mark Kelly of Arizona, two Democrats who face potentially tough re-election fights.

“For Washington liberals, a $3 trillion power grab is their wildest fantasy come true,” says the ad, which ends by urging viewers to call the senators to oppose the “liberal pipe dream.”

Democrats are determined to persuade voters to see it quite differently. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Mr. Sanders rattled through the highlights of the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package and the provisions Democrats hope to build upon with the new bill, including continued monthly payments to families with children. Backed by testimonials from local officials and residents about needs the package could address, he pledged to fight for the inclusion of key liberal priorities, including lowering prescription drug pricing, providing free community college and funding programs to combat climate change.

“I thought it’s important to bring the issues that we’re dealing with to the people of America,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview.

In Mr. Bennet’s case, he is emphasizing the local benefits of the hulking bill. In particular, it calls for the Senate Agriculture Committee to allocate $135 billion for an array of federal efforts, including “forestry programs to help reduce carbon emissions and prevent wildfires.”

While Colorado has so far been spared a wildfire crisis this summer, last year was a disaster, with extensive losses both in destroyed homes and overall economic damage. This year, disruptive mudslides from the scars of the multiple fires and runoff in burned areas has turned segments of the Colorado River and other waterways black.

And though Colorado might not be experiencing many fires this summer, the smoke from blazes elsewhere in the West has obscured the mountain views that draw many to Colorado in the first place, leaving Denver with some of the worst air quality in the world at times.

Mr. Bennet, who is up for re-election next year, said that the $60 billion that was currently spent on firefighting covered only direct costs and did not include other aspects, such as the lost tourism and the effects of air pollution. He said understaffed and chronically underfunded agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service needed an infusion of money to take steps to lower the threat of fires, rather than just battle them as they occur.

“Our entire state is affected by the lack of federal investment in our forests,” he told his Clear Creek audience.

Local officials said that they recognized the magnitude of the spending bill but that the needs were huge, particularly considering the losses experienced with devastating fires, closed parks and disruptions like the mudslides that closed Interstate 70, the state’s main east-west highway, for parts of the summer.

“The scale of the problem has become enormous,” said Randall Wheelock, the chairman of the Clear Creek County Board of Commissioners, who said “billions and billions of dollars” of real estate was at risk from fires and climate change, along with the health of the state’s waterways and economy.

“It is a big one,” he said of the cost, “but we have spent that kind of money before on things we care about.”

Mr. Bennet also took his appeal to a more conservative part of the state in sprawling Grand County, straddling the Continental Divide. He met with ranchers experimenting with ways to better protect the suffering Colorado River, which is vital to local agriculture, and to more efficiently irrigate their pastures. The ranchers, while leery of Mr. Bennet’s political affiliation, welcomed his interest in the river.

If Democrats can demonstrate the concrete benefits of the budget plan to people like them, Mr. Bennet said, it could help them make inroads with conservatives.

“Every single rancher downstream from these places will benefit from this,” he said as he stood in a sunny hayfield along the Colorado River just outside the town of Kremmling. “They may never vote for Joe Biden, but I do think it gives Joe Biden the opportunity to come to these communities and say, ‘You were not invisible to me.’”

As for the overall cost, Mr. Bennet does not believe that is an insurmountable obstacle for voters who see major needs in their communities.

“I think the normal person is a lot more interested in what the money is being spent on,” he said. “We’ve had 20 years of two wars in the Middle East that cost $5.6 trillion. We have since 2001 cut taxes for the richest people in the country by almost $5 trillion. Now, finally, we are investing in the American people.”

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Source: NYT > U.S. > Politics

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