Joe Biden’s success to date has owed itself to many factors, the largest of which is the willingness of congressional Democrats to compromise with each other. The narrow margins of the party’s majority means almost any member in either chamber can blow up any bill, and just as the dynamic of mutually assured destruction prevented the Soviets and the United States from obliterating each other, it has muted the traditionally fractious Democratic caucus.
That dynamic is beginning to change, and the instigators are easy to identity: a handful of moderate House Democrats who have been issuing increasingly aggressive demands, culminating in a new letter threatening to withhold their votes from a budget resolution that will contain Biden’s signature domestic legislation and the basis of the party’s campaign.
The demand of the letter is that the House votes on the bipartisan infrastructure bill before it votes on the budget. Why are the nine Democrats so insistent on this order when the party’s leadership wants to pass both bills? The reason is that they aren’t promising to support the budget resolution, either. The House leadership can wait on the infrastructure bill, which they are desperate to pass, to pressure them to support the bigger, Democrats-only budget bill. If the infrastructure bill were to pass the House first, on the other hand, they could threaten to take their ball and go home if the House doesn’t give them absolutely everything they want.
Notably, the moderate House Democrats have been loading up the reconciliation bill with a series of conflicting demands. On the one hand, they have been complaining about its overall size and pushing to shrink down the headline number. On the other hand, they have been making their own costly demands. Josh Gottheimer, one letter signer, has been crusading for a restoration of the state and local tax deduction, a benefit for some of his affluent constituents. Jim Costa, another signer, wants to protect the heirs to massive fortunes from any taxation on their windfall.
These demands, notably, are not designed to protect the Democratic Party from the left’s unpopular baggage. Most of the broader debate has focused on the toxic brand damage of slogans like defunding the police and Green New Deal, but the moderate Democrats are, in this case, threatening to tank a highly popular agenda of taxing the very rich in order to give broad middle-class benefits. The moderate Democrats are the biggest obstacle to making the math work, simultaneously complaining about the size of the bill while ordering more expensive goodies for themselves.
The larger problem with this threat is that it misunderstands the actual leverage they possess. The nine Democratic saboteurs could get an infrastructure bill tomorrow, but that wouldn’t help them because it almost certainly won’t pass the House. The bill needs liberal Democrats to pass, and the liberals are supporting Biden’s strategy. So, getting the infrastructure bill up for a vote would simply mean the infrastructure bill would be defeated by mass opposition — not only by the 94 members of the House Progressive Caucus but also likely other liberal Democrats who want Biden to succeed. A failed infrastructure vote does nothing to help the moderates.
That is the unusual feature of the current impasse. Typically, moderates hold all the cards because the walk-away scenario of no bill harms them less than it harms the liberals. In this case, the moderates have a bill that they care about more than the liberals do, inverting the typical dynamic.
The suicidal illogic of the demand may explain why only nine Democrats signed the letter. The most famous Democratic members representing purple districts — Ellisa Slotkin, Abigail Spanberger, and many others — are absent from the list, which is heavy with Democrats focused monomaniacally on protecting the bank accounts of their funders.
The moderates’ desperation to pass the infrastructure bill is perfectly understandable. It’s a popular bill that has wide Republican support and the perfect issue to support their message that they can work across party lines. But the only way for them to actually get that bill signed into law is to work cooperatively with their party’s liberals and find an agreeable deal to pass Biden’s signature domestic legislation.
They can kill Biden’s domestic agenda, but doing so would only mean that the bipartisan infrastructure bill comes crashing down with it, along with the entire Democratic Party’s domestic profile. That’s how mutually assured destruction works: When you have so much leverage that you can obliterate everything, you actually don’t have much leverage at all.