Last week’s theatrics in Congress didn’t cast the Democratic governing majority in its most favorable light.
Weeks, if not months, of threats between dueling blocs of centrist and progressive Democrats climaxed as leaders worked to clear a legislative path for the Biden agenda. Intraparty sniping, gossiping, and rumormongering reached a point that by Friday, House Democrats were required to put their phones in kindergarten-esque cubby holes before entering private group therapy sessions for fear of leaks. In the end, on Friday afternoon, President Joe Biden visited House Democrats not to rally them toward passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill that day, but to put it on ice until a broader deal was worked out. Centrists ushered in a splendid fall weekend by trashing Speaker Nancy Pelosi for breaking her word on holding a vote.
Aesthetically unpleasant? Absolutely. Dems in disarray? Not exactly.
Even though Democrats left Washington last week without having passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill or reaching an agreement on the broader, progressive-favored reconciliation bill, it was one of the more productive weeks they’ve had so far. Democrats, for the first time since this “two-track” process began months ago, finally started dealing in reality and began the difficult negotiations necessary to fulfill both legislative goals. If Democrats, with their teeny-tiny majority, ever were going to enact both the bipartisan infrastructure deal and the Build Back Better Act, they needed to have a week like last week.
Democrats in Congress, across the spectrum, spent the summer delaying reality, engaging instead in gamesmanship and efforts to outmaneuver one another. A group of about 10 centrists in the House, led by New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, felt they could trick progressives into giving up all of their negotiating leverage by forcing a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill well before the reconciliation bill was finished. Though these centrists insisted this was all about the dire need for gettin’ shovels in the ground and hardworkin’ folk back to hardworkin’ jobs, the reality was that they wanted their preferred bill passed so they then had the ability to walk away from negotiations over the reconciliation bill.
Meanwhile, progressives and rank-and-file Democrats held on to the fantasy that there would be a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. There was never going to be a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. The number was the product of a deal on the Senate Budget Committee, cut between Sens. Bernie Sanders and Mark Warner, on which Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema were never consulted and never agreed. Nevertheless, House committees drafted and compiled the Build Back Better Act toward that target, with all of the agenda items that could fit under it. If there was one moment last week that captured the illusion under which Democrats had been operating the last few months, it was the leak of a secret document Chuck Schumer and Manchin had signed in July acknowledging that Manchin was only willing to spend $1.5 trillion.
But then came last week: Moderates learned the hard way that they cannot trick progressives into giving up all of their leverage. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, held strong in its refusal to supply the votes to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill until there’s an agreement on the reconciliation bill. They will need to come to the table. As for the progressives, they and the leadership finally began acknowledging publicly that there will not be a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. And Manchin, as part of saying he can accept $1.5 trillion, also said—and no one really knew this until last week!—that he wants a reconciliation bill in the first place.
When Biden visited the Hill on Friday, he saw reality too: a path forward that Democrats, whether they knew it or not, had arrived at after a long, frenzied week of overdue negotiations. The bipartisan infrastructure bill wouldn’t become law until Democrats had a deal on reconciliation, and the “$3.5 trillion reconciliation bill” would be more like the $1.8 trillion to $2.2 trillion reconciliation bill.
Democrats could have had a better PR week, without the tut-tutting columns about whether they will ever get anything done, if they had done the normal routine of passing a few easy bills or confirming a few nominees while holding press conferences about how united they were. Instead, they finally began the difficult, necessary process of negotiating in earnest and discovering what everyone could live with.
The truism about congressional negotiating is that you can’t have the good meeting until you’ve had the bad meeting, and Democrats were never going to have the good week until they had the bad one. If they can get a few more bad weeks under their belt, they might even be able to pass their agenda.