Politics

The Tactical Decision Democrats Will Be Arguing About for Years to Come

Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Rep. Pramila Jayapal speaking with reporters outside the U.S. Capitol Building on November 18, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, says she has no regrets. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

They much rather would have been proven wrong. But when West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin announced on Sunday that he would be a “no” on the Build Back Better Act, killing the Democrats’ signature legislation for the time being, there were a few Democrats who had the opportunity to say I told you so.

And so they did.

Six of the left-wing House members constituting the expanded “Squad”—Reps. Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib—voted against the bipartisan infrastructure deal in the House when it passed in November. They were the last progressive holdouts to stick to the original position of both the Congressional Progressive Caucus and, many moons ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: that the House shouldn’t send the infrastructure bill to President Joe Biden’s desk until the Senate had passed a Build Back Better bill. That way, they could ensure centrist Sens. Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema didn’t give up on Build Back Better once they got what they wanted.

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After that exact sequence of events played out over the weekend, live on Fox News Sunday, the anger was released.

“We have been saying this, for weeks, that this would happen,” Bush said on MSNBC. “Having those coupled together was the only leverage we had. And what did the caucus do? We tossed it.”

“When a handful of us in the House warned this would happen if Dem leaders gave Manchin everything he wanted 1st by moving BIF before BBB instead of passing together,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “many ridiculed our position. Maybe they’ll believe us next time. Or maybe people will just keep calling us naïve.”

“This is exactly what we warned would happen if we separated Build Back Better from infrastructure,” Omar tweeted.

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If Build Back Better is truly dead—or comes back as a pared-down, means-tested shell of its once-sprawling ambitions—that decision by all-but-six progressives to let the infrastructure bill through first is one of those calls that will be relitigated for years. It will join the ranks of “Could Democrats have gotten a bigger stimulus deal in 2009?” or, well, anything from the 2016 Democratic presidential primary as a reliable argument starter. Decades down the road, grandchildren will be hounded with spiels from their progressive grandparents about the time Democrats erred on the sequencing of Biden’s legislative agenda.

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It is ultimately a question of whether progressives ever really had the upper hand on Manchin.

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For a while, it seemed as if they might. Progressives held out longer than previous iterations of the once-toothless Congressional Progressive Caucus would have. Pelosi twice had tried to ram through the infrastructure bill but lacked the votes. Too many CPC members, in lockstep behind their chairwoman, Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, refused to release their hostage.

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But eventually the pressure became too much. It was no longer just House leadership pressing for a vote on infrastructure at the beginning of November, but the White House too. In those final hours, Jayapal extracted a commitment—in person, where she reportedly made them look her in the eye—from House centrists that they would advance the Build Back Better Act later on. (They did.) Progressives also took Biden’s word that he had a commitment from Manchin and Sinema to support Build Back Better in the end. All but those six Democrats joined 13 Republicans in passing the infrastructure bill.

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Jayapal, in a press call Monday, was asked whether she regrets letting the infrastructure bill pass when she did.

“This is the question I’ve gone over in my head a million times,” she said. “And I can tell you, I don’t.”

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Jayapal had not trashed Manchin in the press the past few months the way some CPC members had. They got to know each other a little during the process, and she took Manchin’s word—and the president’s word—that Manchin was negotiating in good faith. On Monday, though, she unloaded on him for breaking his supposed commitment.

“That lack of integrity is stunning in a town where people say the only thing that you have is your word,” she said on the press call. “It is abundantly clear that we cannot trust what Sen. Manchin says.” She took a call from Manchin on Monday morning and said she relayed all of this to him directly.

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“There is nothing I have said here that I didn’t say to him.”

Jayapal explains her nonregret by saying that boxing Manchin into making a commitment to the president, or going back on his word, was the most that she could do. (The possibility that perhaps Biden wasn’t honest with her when he said he had a commitment from Manchin hasn’t materialized as the likely theory yet, though it’s sitting on the periphery. “Either the president did not have a commitment, or the senator made a commitment and went back,” Jayapal told reporters. “And I believe the president when he says he had a commitment.”) Blocking the infrastructure bill from passing the House a third time, meanwhile, would’ve backfired with Manchin.

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“I think he would’ve walked away,” she explained. “And I think he would’ve walked away from potentially both of them, or, had we then come back and said, ‘Well OK, we’ll pass the infrastructure bill,’ then we would’ve still ended up in the same place.”

This is the case for why progressives, even if they could delay a vote a couple of times, never really had the upper hand in these negotiations: Manchin could more easily live in a world where nothing passed than the rest of the party could. Maybe they should have just let him burn the whole thing then, if that’s what they suspected he always wanted to do, and then spent more time before the end of the year trying to reconstitute the pieces. But that’s all hindsight.

For now, Jayapal said, she’s done engaging with Manchin, and the CPC believes Biden should move immediately with a slew of executive actions on climate, student debt relief, and more. And if nothing comes to pass, well, at least progressives will have the consolation prize of a tactical decision to argue about for the rest of their lives.

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