Politics

Progressives Thought They Had the Upper Hand in Congress. Here’s Why They Were Wrong.

Jayapal in a mask speaks to reporters on the Capitol steps
Rep. Pramila Jayapal at the Capitol on Tuesday. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

There was a moment in Congress earlier this year when progressives felt they had the upper hand. A fleeting one.

The Senate had passed its bipartisan infrastructure deal, demanded by moderates, clearing the stage for progressives’ turn: a $3.5 trillion party-line grab bag of priorities on child care, education, health care, and climate change, funded largely by tax increases on the wealthy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had pledged that she wouldn’t hold a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure deal until the Senate had also passed the bigger, party-line bill. Progressives, with the speaker’s backing, had taken moderates’ top priority hostage, believing it would force their centrist colleagues to negotiate with them on the party-line bill. This set up an inversion of the typical dynamic in Democratic majorities, where the moderates decide what they can live with, and then Democratic leaders jam it down the left’s throat.

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A couple of months later, though, the old ways have reasserted themselves. The reconciliation bill isn’t done, but leaders are ready to pass the bipartisan infrastructure deal. It is causing no shortage of betrayal! cries among progressive lawmakers on Capitol Hill now, with some threatening to rebel later this week.

Why did everything change?

One reason is that successive rounds of hostage taking, threats, and counterthreats had bred an environment of overbearing paranoia and distrust among Democrats, leading to a genuine fear among the caucus that Biden’s entire agenda might simply collapse under the accumulating pressure. By last week, the moderates, who are generally more comfortable with the country’s status quo, seemed increasingly willing to walk on the whole process if the infrastructure package didn’t pass. And if they were willing to bail with or without their bipartisan prize, then progressives never had that much leverage to begin with.

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Beyond those big-picture forces, the idea that the House might sit on the bipartisan infrastructure bill indefinitely wasn’t really sustainable thanks to the micro-dynamics of Capitol Hill. The longer it sat around—and if it’s waiting for a multitrillion-dollar spending bill covering an array of policies to catch up, it would have to sit a while—the more pressure points would arise to force its release. A broadly popular, bipartisan bill can only collect so much dust before it’s going to be sent to a president with sagging approval ratings who could use a win.

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The first pressure point came in the House in August. Democrats first had to pass a budget blueprint that would unlock the use of reconciliation, the filibuster-free process they’re relying on to move their social spending plans. A group of House moderates, led by New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, took this budget outline hostage, refusing to vote for it unless the bipartisan infrastructure bill got a vote first. After a few long, angsty nights, they reached an agreement with Pelosi to hold a House vote on the bipartisan infrastructure deal no later than Sept. 27. That put Pelosi’s open-ended commitment on a timeline.

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And why Sept. 27? Well, the existing federal highway bill, which this bipartisan package would replace, is set to expire at the end of the month. That’s the other pressure point, and Pelosi’s reaction to this was telling. The speaker said that she had always been planning to hold the vote in late September to prevent a lapse in highway funding. If that’s true, though, then she knew that her open-ended commitment to sit on the bipartisan bill wasn’t tenable when she made it.

In a caucus meeting Monday, Pelosi finally bit the bullet and reversed her position: She told her members that they could no longer hold out on passing the infrastructure bill until the Senate acted on reconciliation. She had made a commitment to pass the bipartisan bill this week, before the highway bill expired, and reconciliation wasn’t ready.

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Some progressives have come to terms with this. Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, a salty veteran of the chamber who’s had vicious things to say about the bipartisan infrastructure bill all along, told me Tuesday that this is the best they can do.

“There’s no alternative,” he said. “This is the best we can do. You know, I’ve been fighting for additional funding for infrastructure ever since Obama killed my bill, and Trump did nothing. So at least the money’s there.”

Others are less acquiescent. Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, in a since-deleted tweet, called the decision to move the bipartisan bill before the reconciliation bill a “betrayal” and threatened to “vote it down” on Thursday. She was not alone in Tuesday’s Congressional Progressive Caucus meeting, where one member after another railed against the breached agreement.

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“We articulated this position more than three months ago,” CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal said in a statement following the meeting, “and today it is still unchanged: progressives will vote for both bills, but a majority of our members will only vote for the infrastructure bill after the President’s visionary Build Back Better Act passes.”

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The founding chairman of the CPC, who’s since moved on to bigger and better things, joined their calls:

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How does this play out? At the very least, there needs to be a deal, with some sort of binding mechanism, between progressives and moderates—all of them—on how they will proceed with the reconciliation bill. A total spending number, and an understanding of the priorities that will be funded. And this needs to be done before the Thursday vote on the bipartisan bill.

And then you will see a full-scale assault from every leading figure in the Democratic Party—House leaders, President Joe Biden, probably multiple former Democratic presidents—insisting progressives fall in line.

Nature is healing. And that’s never good for the progressive wing of the House Democratic Caucus.

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