The progressives blinked.
For months, the feisty left of the House Democratic Caucus insisted it would not get votes to approve Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package until the Senate first approved the rest of the president’s economic agenda. Progressives say at least all 50 Senate Democrats — especially the two most centrist members of the chamber, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — should at least commit to Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan. Twice, the House Liberals backed up their hard talk with action (or rather, inaction) by rejecting Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s request to vote on the infrastructure bill.
Then the out-of-year voters had their say. Three days after Republicans defeated Democrats in Virginia and nearly toppled them in New Jersey, the progressives released the legislative hostage they had held captive for three months and helped push through the bipartisan infrastructure package. Fearing a total collapse of the Democratic agenda—and anticipating that they would be blamed for its failure—they decided they couldn’t hold out any longer. In a word, they were desperate.
In exchange for helping send the Senate-passed infrastructure bill to Biden’s desk, the progressives were given only a promise—that the House would eventually pass the much more comprehensive Build Back Better Act, a $1.75 trillion bill that universal pre- kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds, comprehensive childcare allowance, four weeks of paid family leave and historic investments in the climate fight. Arriving at the Capitol this morning, the House Democrats believed they would vote on both the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act. But a small group of moderates — just big enough to sink a party vote because of Democrats’ tiny majority — told Pelosi they wouldn’t vote for the larger proposal without a full estimate from the impartial Congressional Budget Office of its impact. on federal deficits.
The only vote that took place on the Build Back Better Act was a procedural move to set up a debate later this month. The fate of the progressives’ agenda – and Biden’s – remains as uncertain as ever.
“That’s the sloppiness of democracy by very narrow margins,” California Representative Ro Khanna, a progressive House who served as the national co-chair of Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign last year, told me earlier this week, hinting at his resignation. voice.
In reality, progressives had started moving days before this week’s election, and many had privately pushed for a change of course weeks before. What ultimately changed their minds, however, was the deteriorating political position of the Democratic Party and the realization that their strategy of holding back one bill from passing another had failed. While Biden shared the progressives’ sense of urgency to deliver on their promises, the other most powerful Joe in Washington – Manchin – did not. The West Virginia Democrat refused to endorse the framework Biden announced last week. He has continued to negotiate but wants the party to delay its rush to enact such an elaborate and expensive agenda. Progressives grew tired of waiting for him; their message now, as delivered by Washington State Representative Pramila Jayapal, is that convincing Manchin is Biden’s job and they are confident that the president will win him over.
“I think it’s going to be a longer process than I hoped and maybe thought, but I think it will get there eventually,” Khanna said. “In an ideal world, would it be great if 50 senators publicly expressed their support? Of course. Is there a risk that things we want won’t make it to the final? [bill]? Of course. But am I confident that the final bill will be substantively similar to the framework proposed by the president? Yes.”
At least, if there is already a final settlement. The Senate is an overcrowded graveyard of House-passed aspirations, whether it’s the great Obama-era climate bill that died there over a decade ago, or the GOP’s long-promised repeal of the Affordable Care Act that the late Sen. John McCain killed with his famous thumbs down. Progressives’ agreement to a vote on infrastructure legislation means Biden won’t come empty-handed earlier in the spring from his ambitious gamble that he could win both a substantial bipartisan bill and a broader social spending and climate proposal on a party line. mood. The passing of the bipartisan bill is good news for the president and even better news for the states, cities and towns that depend on the infusion of federal funding for new and repaired roads, bridges and railroad systems, along with the construction jobs that come along. But formally separating the infrastructure proposal from the broader $1.75 trillion bill raises the likelihood that the latter will fail completely, which would spell huge defeat for progressives.
Progressives believed the Senate had “gone as far as they could get,” Joseph Geevarghese, the executive director of Our Revolution, the advocacy group that emerged from Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, told me. “That’s just a strategic decision. What they are signaling is that they are trying to align with the president to get things done.”
Over the Democrats hangs a mounting fear among moderates and progressives alike that the party has damaged its position with the voters and is about to squander what could be a brief chance to rule. This week’s electoral reprimand in Virginia and New Jersey only exacerbated that frustration. Moderates blamed progressives for holding back final approval of the infrastructure bill, while progressives blamed Manchin and Sinema for delaying most of Biden’s agenda. When Biden signed the US$1.9 trillion bailout in March, the president’s approval rating stood at 53 percent; it is now under 43 percent, and a 2022 GOP Congress victory seems almost a foregone conclusion to many in Washington. “There’s not much to show for the Democrats in power in Washington,” Geevarghese said, “and I think that’s the message the American electorate has sent.”
House progressives weren’t the only players to change course in recent days. For weeks, Pelosi had assured her members that she would not introduce a bill in the House that could not also pass the Senate; the pledge was aimed at electorally vulnerable lawmakers who feared Republicans would attack them for voting for liberal priorities that, because they never became law, would actually bring no benefits to their voters. But the speaker shifted after Manchin refused to endorse Biden’s cadre. Pelosi ordered the House law to include a provision requiring four weeks of paid family and medical leave, which Democrats had previously scrapped and which is unlikely to see the Senate acquitted over Manchin’s opposition. The move helped soften progressives, but it also served as an acknowledgment that the bill before the House was just an initial offer, not a finished product.
In the end, most House Democrats couldn’t care less. While Pelosi worked to win over the last resisting moderates to the “Build Back Better” plan, progressives were eager to vote for both bills. They hadn’t gotten the assurances they wanted, though they insisted that their strategy succeeded in bringing Democrats to the brink of transformative legislative victory. “The obvious message is: [voters] don’t want a stalemate,” Khanna said, thinking about the election. “They want us to get something done.”
When it became clear that the House would not vote on the Build Back Better Act today, progressives initially said they would again refuse to support the infrastructure bill. But they withdrew after a direct plea from Biden and once the moderate holdouts promised to vote for the bigger bill if the cost estimate matched the party’s expectations. In the end, only six House progressives voted against the infrastructure bill. The measure passed the House late Friday night, 228-206, with the help of 13 Republicans who voted yes.
By ultimately voting for the infrastructure bill, progressives gave Biden something tangible to showcase the past few months of his negotiations with Congress. But they also revealed their desperation, and that, like a certain self-proclaimed dealmaker who later became president, can be a dangerous business. “The worst thing you can do in a deal is seem desperate to make it,” Donald Trump wrote in… The art of dealing. “That makes the other man smell blood, and you’re dead.”