Where Things Stand With The Democratic Agenda: A Pause, A Reset And Maybe Hope

This week’s drama represents a triumph for progressives over moderates. But the two wings of the party still need to cut a deal in order to save Joe Biden's agenda.

WASHINGTON ― Democrats this week failed to enact two major bills that they hope will help them retain their majorities in the House and Senate and cement President Joe Biden’s legacy as a consequential head of state.

But the stalled vote over a bipartisan infrastructure bill in the House, as well as the intense and messy infighting over a major social spending bill, may only amount to bumps in the road as Democrats ultimately finish both items.

House Democrats huddled Friday during two separate meetings but they were unable to come together on a path forward. Biden himself addressed the caucus on Capitol Hill after calls from lawmakers for the president to get more involved in negotiations, but the House ultimately adjourned without taking action on the legislation.

Biden told Democrats they would need to compromise on the size of the social spending bill by as much as $1 trillion and endorsed the two-track strategy progressives are demanding.

“He basically linked them together,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told reporters.

Afterward, Biden told reporters he was in no rush to pass his agenda, saying that whether passing both bills takes “six minutes, six days or six weeks ― we’re going to get it done.”

In a sense, this week’s drama represents a triumph for progressives and party leaders over centrists. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the Democrat who has been most vocal in opposition to the Build Back Better bill, still has a lot of leverage ― but not as much as he did before.

How We ‘Gott’ Here

Problem Solvers Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) is pursued by a group of reporters as he leaves the U.S. Capitol.
Problem Solvers Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) is pursued by a group of reporters as he leaves the U.S. Capitol.
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

Back in August, a small faction of moderate Democrats led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) threatened to vote down a procedural resolution that would set up the eventual up-or-down votes on infrastructure and the yet-to-be-written spending bill, which Democratic leaders say will drastically improve working life in America with $3.5 trillion over 10 years in new programs paid for with tax hikes on the rich.

To win over the squeamish moderates, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed to let the infrastructure bill get a vote at the end of September no matter what, seemingly breaking a promise she and Biden had made to pass the two bills together.

At the time, Gottheimer crowed that infrastructure would “receive standalone consideration, fully delinked” from the bigger bill. But progressives immediately said they wouldn’t vote for the infrastructure bill before Congress had considered Build Back Better.

On Thursday, as the end of September neared and a vote looked doubtful — because Pelosi doesn’t put things on the floor if they’ll fail — Gottheimer continued to say the infrastructure bill would pass the House that very night. His prediction drew scoffing laughter from Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the nearly 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, when she heard about it from reporters.

Progressives held their line, and it turns out they have more power than the moderates in the House — especially when they’re aligned with Pelosi. But everything now hinges on these two sides cutting a deal.

Kevin McCarthy’s Political Calculation

The infrastructure bill passed the Senate with 19 Republican votes. Potentially dozens of House Republicans might have supported it — at least until former President Donald Trump said they shouldn’t, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) then aggressively urged his members to vote against it.

If Republicans had given Pelosi the votes for infrastructure, they could have killed progressives’ leverage for the bigger bill and seriously undermined President Biden’s domestic policy. But they decided to be obstructive in a less strategic way.

“The Republican strategy is simple, and that is to deny Democrats victory on any of the Democratic initiatives,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) told HuffPost.

Democrats Still Need Joe Manchin

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks to reporters outside of the U.S. Capitol.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks to reporters outside of the U.S. Capitol.
Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images

One of the major obstacles toward reaching a deal has been the unwillingness of moderate senators to stake out a clear position in the talks. Progressives complained for months that they couldn’t negotiate with someone who refused to spell out their demands for what should or shouldn’t be included in a reconciliation package. That all changed on Thursday after Manchin publicly confirmed his preferred outline for the bill: $1.5 trillion in total spending over 10 years paid for in full by repealing parts of the GOP’s 2017 tax cuts.

“We’re going to come to an agreement,” Manchin said Thursday evening after a meeting with top White House officials that yielded no deal. “I’m trying to make sure they understand, I’m at $1.5 trillion.”

A bill totaling $1.5 trillion would force Democrats to make difficult decisions about which priorities they would keep and which ones they would cut. Their ambitious plans for a larger bill expanding the social safety net with new federal programs and taking meaningful action to fight climate change would need to be scaled back dramatically.

Manchin first outlined his requirements for the bill in a secret agreement that was signed by both him and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on July 28, weeks before Democrats voted to advance a budget resolution instructing Congress to draft a $3.5 trillion bill. The document left open the possibility that Manchin could support a higher number. It also included a written note from Schumer stating that he would try to change Manchin’s mind.

Stunned Democrats were kept in the dark about the existence of the document, including some members of Schumer’s leadership team. Pelosi was also apparently unaware, which is unusual given how closely the two top congressional leaders work together. “She had no knowledge of that until this week,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) told CNN on Friday.

In a note to her colleagues on Friday night, Pelosi said that ”great progress” had been made in the negotiations between the House, the Senate and the White House, but that “more time is needed to complete the task.”

Jayapal said she would stay in Washington over the weekend and as long as it takes. But progressives would not relent in blocking infrastructure without Build Back Better.

“We are going to pass these two things,” she said.

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