When the House of Representatives returns early from summer recess next week to vote on a blueprint for Democrats’ eventual multitrillion-dollar spending bill, the Democratic majority will quickly have to resolve a high-stakes standoff. In one corner: Speaker Nancy Pelosi, President Joe Biden, and a comfortable majority of House Democrats. In the other: nine House moderates, led by New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, co-chair of the bipartisan but not necessarily accurately named Problem Solvers Caucus.
So which side would you put your money on? Exactly. Which makes the most pressing question for our nation’s lawmakers: What, precisely, is Gottheimer’s endgame here?
Gottheimer, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton representing a swingy, but Democrat-trending, northern New Jersey district, was elected to Congress in 2016 and has regularly raised the ire of the left. He led other Problem Solvers in trying to extract concessions from Pelosi ahead of her return to the speakership in 2019. He’s also a prodigious fundraiser; his connections to Wall Street and corporate America are a constant source of speculation about ulterior motives among progressives.
When the Problem Solvers tried to force concessions from Pelosi in exchange for speaker votes, though, she rolled them. And even though some of Gottheimer’s crew got antsy about the first Trump impeachment, they ultimately almost unanimously went along with it. This is Democratic moderates’ reputation within the Capitol: They’ll make a lot of noise, but won’t go to the mattresses because they understand, in all likelihood, that they’ll lose.
Which makes their current, aggressive stand all the more intriguing.
House Democratic leaders, facing a pissed-off contingent of House progressives and committee chairs displeased about being shut out from negotiations over the bipartisan infrastructure deal that recently passed the Senate, came up with a strategy earlier this summer. The House, Pelosi committed, would not vote on that Senate deal until the Senate had also sent over a suitable bill for the rest of Democrats’ social spending agenda, on health care, climate, the child tax credit, and everything—everything—else. Holding that bipartisan bill in escrow was the way for progressives to ensure that moderates wouldn’t peace out on the rest of the agenda once they had gotten the “hard” infrastructure bill, which they craved, signed into law.
Plenty of House Democratic moderates were unhappy with this and wanted an immediate vote on the bipartisan Senate bill. It’s perfectly understandable where they’re coming from. Many of the moderates’ seats will be the first to go if the 2022 midterm atmosphere sours. They are the ones who, when returning to their districts for August recess, can’t turn on the TV without seeing a flood of well-financed attacks against them. It makes sense that they would want a nice, once-in-a-decade bill to rebuild roads and bridges to vote for now and to campaign on for the rest of summer recess.
Many of these moderates, though, weren’t willing to risk drawing a line against Pelosi that they couldn’t defend. Only nine of them, led by Gottheimer, did last week. In a letter, they pledged that they would not vote for Democrats’ budget blueprint—the necessary first step to unlocking a reconciliation bill—until the House passed, and the president signed into law, the bipartisan infrastructure bill. With Pelosi and the progressive caucus saying the opposite—no bipartisan infrastructure bill until the Senate had sent over a reconciliation bill—someone would have to look foolish in the end.
Pelosi has a system for dealing with these situations. As she put it in 2019, after staring down President Donald Trump over a government shutdown, “you always start with a feather, until you get to the sledgehammer.” In this case, the feather came in the form of offering the moderates a way to save face: She would offer a procedural vote that advanced both the budget and the bipartisan infrastructure deal together. That way, moderates could say that they at least advanced the ball on the bipartisan infrastructure deal, even if the House hasn’t passed it.
The next day, the nine moderates rejected the offer.
In doing so, they invited the sledgehammer phase of the proceedings, with Pelosi telling leaders on a call earlier this week that she had no time for the moderates’ “amateur hour.” The White House, which publicly had been staying neutral in the spat, came out publicly in support of Pelosi’s plan on Tuesday. Pelosi’s plan is, essentially, to stare them down and to let them feel what it’s like to have the sensation of an entire party, and the future of that party’s agenda, bearing down on them.
So what, then, is Gottheimer and the gang’s plan here? If they back down, they’ll never be taken seriously as a real threat again. If they don’t back down, many of them will find themselves in a deeply uncomfortable position when they head home: Even in a moderate district, you can’t afford to block your president’s agenda and expect your base to be pleased. Maybe Gottheimer is determined not to back down. But Democratic leaders can afford to lose only three votes, and Pelosi will try to pick off six of those nine. Not all of the nine, by the way, are vulnerable in general elections. Hawaii Rep. Ed Case, for example, represents a district that Biden won by 29 percentage points in 2020. Does he want to be responsible for deep-sixing the president’s agenda?
It could be that Gottheimer is trying to leverage his vote for policy changes in the reconciliation bill to come, such as lifting or eliminating the cap on the state and local tax deduction, something that’s vital to Democrats representing well-to-do suburban districts like his. Maybe that can be arranged. Or maybe, by the vote next week, he won’t be in a position to negotiate for anything. We can’t all be Joe Manchin.