Politics

Moderates Had Their Moment. Will They Let Progressives Have Theirs?

Senator Bernie Sanders and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer walking down a hallway on Capitol Hill as the Senate moves toward a vote on infrastructure funding August 9, 2021, in Washington, DC.
With the infrastructure vote behind them, Senator Bernie Sanders and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are turning to a less bipartisan effort. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images

The end of the moderates’ moment couldn’t have been more abrupt.

After months of work and more than a week of debate, the Senate passed its infrastructure bill late Tuesday morning by a hearty 69 to 30 vote. Nineteen Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, joined all Democrats in completing the mammoth bill to revitalize the country’s roads and bridges,  delivering President Biden the bipartisan victory that his doubters spent all of the 2020 presidential primary season saying couldn’t be done.

Advertisement

It was quite a victory for the moderates. But the smoke from the bipartisan fireworks had barely dissipated before Sen. Bernie Sanders, the chairman of the Budget Committee, was on the floor getting revved up about the next item of business, which he’s argued “will go further to improve the lives of working people than any legislation since the 1930s.” This $3.5 trillion bill of progressives’ dreams, which will cover climate change, universal pre-k, child care, expanding Medicare, the child tax credit, Obamacare, giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, taxing the rich, taking on prescription drug companies, and much more—this is the stuff progressives have been waiting to sink their teeth into, and getting the chance to do so is why they agreed to pass the moderates’ little infrastructure deal.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

But now the question stands: After reluctantly holding hands with the moderates all summer, will progressives actually get to own the fall?

As Senate Democratic moderates spent months negotiating and then passing a bipartisan infrastructure deal with Republicans, progressives bided their time. In the Senate, 50 out of 50 Democrats voted for the deal, even if some progressives were never particularly hot about it. That, in their minds, was holding up their part of the bargain—one that they expect to be reciprocated. “We’re with you on this bipartisan bill,” as Politico described Sanders’ message to moderates in a recent Democratic lunch, “so you better be with us on our $3.5 trillion spending package.”

The extent to which Senate progressives felt sidelined in the infrastructure talks this summer was nothing compared to House progressives, who dominate the House Democratic caucus. They weren’t even party to the talks. It’s not just the leftist members of the Squad, whose objections to the Senate process have captured the most attention. It’s committee chairs who’ve devoted their lives to these issues.

Advertisement

Consider Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, who has been in Congress since 1987 and only now has the chance, as chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to apply his career’s worth of work on these issues to a bill. He carped loudly to the White House about being cut out. In the end, his contribution to the bipartisan talks was watching from afar as his own House-passed bill was used as a “shell” for the Senate to hollow out and replace with its own compromise.

Advertisement

It’s no wonder that the Congressional Progressive Caucus is prepared to take the bipartisan bill hostage to get their reconciliation bill. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has sided with the progressives so far, saying that she won’t bring the bipartisan bill to a House vote until Senate Democrats also send over their reconciliation bill. This is not a case of Pelosi, in her words, “freelancing,” or issuing an edict based on how she felt waking up one day. It’s a case of the best vote-counter in Congress counting votes, and progressives having more.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

That vote count went public Tuesday in the form of a good ol’ fashioned letter-off between House moderates and progressives. In one letter to Pelosi, nine House moderates called for an immediate vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill and expressed “concerns” about the price tag of the looming partisan bill. The Progressive Caucus, however, responded with a letter of its own to Pelosi and Schumer. It conducted a survey of its 96 members asking if they would commit to withholding their votes on the bipartisan deal “until the Senate has passed budget reconciliation legislation deemed acceptable by the Congressional Progressive Caucus.” A “majority” of those members, according to letter-writing Reps. Pramila Jayapal, Katie Porter, and Ilhan Omar, affirmed that they would. A majority of 96 is a bigger number than nine, and those nine aren’t even spelling out consequences if they’re ignored.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Even if it’s progressives’ turn, though, it’s never quite their turn, is it? With moderates, for whom compromise is a virtue in and of itself, there is no real cap on what’s achievable. There’s always more compromise to be had. For progressives, the cap is discrete: Whatever the senior senators from West Virginia and Arizona can live with, because theirs  are the votes the progressives’ need.

Both Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema held up their first part of this bargain by voting for Sanders’ budget blueprint, which passed 50-49 early Wednesday morning, after getting their own bipartisan bill passed. But how much Democrats’ two leading centrists are willing to tolerate in the final reconciliation bill is still the biggest question of the coming months.

Advertisement

Sinema has already straightforwardly said that she will not vote for a bill that costs $3.5 trillion. Manchin, in a statement after the budget vote Wednesday, explained that he had “serious concerns about the grave consequences facing West Virginians and every American family if Congress decides to spend another $3.5 trillion.”

Advertisement

“Given the current state of the economic recovery,” he said, “it is simply irresponsible to continue spending at levels more suited to respond to a Great Depression or Great Recession—not an economy that is on the verge of overheating.”

Advertisement

How can Sinema and Manchin talk like this right after their progressive colleagues swallowed their objections and voted for the infrastructure bill, holding up their side of the deal? Well, the catch to the bargain between progressives and moderates here—we scratch your backs, you scratch ours—is that it wasn’t necessarily the only bargain in town.

Nineteen Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, didn’t go along with the bipartisan budget deal just because they love fixing bridges. They cooperated with Democratic moderates on a bipartisan infrastructure deal, as they acknowledged, because they thought it would limit Manchin and Sinema’s  appetite for a reconciliation package. If  that theory is wrong, Senate Republicans will feel all of the scorn they’ve gotten from conservative critics for enabling Democrats’ spending spree. But if it’s right, the progressives will lose again, and the summer of moderates will prove to be multi-seasonal.

Advertisement