Progressive lawmakers erupted on Tuesday after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) walked back a key pledge she made to her party months ago ― that all of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda would move through Congress at the same time.
At a private Democratic caucus meeting on Monday, Pelosi told members that passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate passed earlier this year cannot wait for the Build Back Better Act, Democrats’ ambitious social safety net and climate package. The circumstances had changed, Pelosi added, and the subsequent $3.5 trillion bill that progressives are pushing won’t be ready for floor action in time before a scheduled vote on the bipartisan bill this week.
“We had to accommodate the changes that were being necessitated,” Pelosi said at the meeting, adding that the House can’t wait on the Senate to come to an agreement on the Build Back Better Act before voting on the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
The announcement ― delinking passage of the two bills on the so-called “two-track” process that Democratic leaders talked up for months ― angered progressives in both the House and Senate.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), of the 95-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, called the move a “betrayal” and threatened to vote no on the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
“We will hold the line and vote it down,” Tlaib tweeted Tuesday.
Congressional Progressive Caucus leader Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) confirmed the group’s stance in a statement, pledging that “a majority of our members will only vote for the infrastructure bill after the President’s visionary Build Back Better Act passes.”
The fear progressives have is that some moderate Democrats, like Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, will decline to support a robust reconciliation bill. The two senators are negotiating with Biden over the size of the bill, a number that will ultimately dictate which Democratic priorities make it into the package.
Progressives want some kind of commitment that, if Congress passes the narrower bipartisan deal, it will also pass a broader package that includes progressive priorities like child care, elder care, affordable housing and investments aimed at boosting electric vehicles. Manchin and Sinema have so far been silent on a top-line number. Manchin has even suggested pausing action on the reconciliation bill until next year.
“We would have to have some significant movement for many of us, dozens of us, to be able to vote yes on Thursday,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said Tuesday on MSNBC.
The intraparty showdown over the Build Back Better Act will put Pelosi’s reputation as a master legislator to the test like never before. In 2010, she held Democrats together to pass the Affordable Care Act, their signature health care law. Pelosi is dealing with a much smaller House majority this time around, however.
With near-unanimous GOP opposition, Pelosi can afford to lose only a few Democrats on Thursday’s vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. If progressives are serious about standing firm and voting no, and it appears they are, she will likely be forced to delay the vote and anger a group of moderates to whom she promised a vote this week.
One way out of the box Democrats find themselves in could be some kind of announcement by Biden, who has been quiet about his preference for which bill he would like to sign first. Biden could offer progressives a way to save face on Thursday’s vote depending on how his conversations with Manchin and Sinema go ― either by reaching an official agreement on the reconciliation package with the moderate Democrats or by outlining some kind of framework for a future deal.
“As I write this to you, negotiations are being led by President Biden to advance his vision,” Pelosi noted in a letter to Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday. “The President takes a pride in his agenda, which is shared overwhelmingly by House and Senate Democrats, which creates jobs, gives tax cuts for the middle class, lowers costs for health care and is paid by making the wealthiest few and big corporations pay their fair share.”
Still, some progressives said they couldn’t help but feel like the rug had been pulled out from under them given prior assurances Pelosi and other Democratic leaders had made about linking the passage of the two pieces of Biden’s agenda.
“I voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill under the impression that the two were tied together. Had I known they weren’t, I might have approached it differently,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told HuffPost. “I get it, circumstances change, but there’s no doubt it’s frustrating for those of us who believe it would have been better keeping them together.”
“We had a deal,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) added. “And that deal was in place long before we voted here in the Senate.”