The drama and attention surrounding the infrastructure bill has focused almost entirely on the Senate, which has seen an unusual, high-profile bipartisan coalition. But the measure can’t be enacted without also passing the House of Representatives, which was not a party to the negotiations, and has a large number of Democrats much less invested in its success than their Senate counterparts. This provides an opportunity for the progressives: The left can and should refuse to support the bipartisan deal until moderate Democrats assure them of support for the much larger, more important reconciliation bill that will follow.
It’s not unusual for progressive Democrats to threaten to withhold their votes in an effort to win concessions. They make these threats all the time, and almost always have to go along in the end with whatever deal the moderates have signed onto. But this time, progressives have real leverage.
The unusual power House progressives hold at the moment is the product of the unique political circumstances of the moment, which has several factors.
To begin with, the bipartisan infrastructure bill is nice, but hardly crucial. It has some useful spending on mass transit, environmental remediation, and other Democratic priorities. The symbolism of a bipartisan bill operating in broad daylight (unlike the under-the-radar maneuverings of the Secret Congress) would provide political validation for President Biden.
But the infrastructure bill is much less important than the far larger Democratic budget bill that is coming next. That bill is many times larger, and its fate will both define Biden’s domestic-policy legacy and play a major role in shaping his 2024 campaign message. Biden and his party will have the chance to run on a combination of popular middle-class benefits (universal child tax credits, enhanced Medicare, and others), financed by an also-popular tax hike on the very wealthy.
The barrier they’re facing is the reluctance of moderate Democrats to raise taxes on the rich. That reluctance is not grounded either in public opinion (which supports soaking the rich) or in economics (even conservative models find Biden’s progressive tax hikes would have barely any effect on economic growth). It’s rooted instead in the deep influence of the ultrawealthy, who would generally prefer not to pay much higher tax rates, and who have enormous levels of access and influence on lawmakers.
Moderate Democrats sent a letter to their party leadership simultaneously asking that the House pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill right away, and preemptively raising doubts about the reconciliation bill:
That’s where the leverage comes in. The moderate Democrats are irrationally worried about passing a big tax hike on the rich, but they really want to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill. They see the bipartisan bill as their golden ticket to showing Republican-leaning voters in their districts that they can work across party lines. If that bill doesn’t pass, instead of getting to talk about how they helped pass a big infrastructure bill with Republican support, their message will be that they tried to pass a big bipartisan bill but failed. If the bipartisan infrastructure bill fails, the moderate Democrats are screwed.
The progressive goal shouldn’t be to sink the infrastructure bill or even to alter it, but to pressure moderate Democrats to support the reconciliation bill. The House progressives have been demanding a vote on the reconciliation bill before passing the infrastructure bill, but the sequence itself is probably not the important thing. What matters is getting private assurances on the contours of a deal from the moderates before the left supplies the votes to pass the infrastructure bill.
Democrats only control the House by a handful of votes. The bipartisan infrastructure bill will probably get some Republican support — 29 Republicans in the “Problem Solvers Caucus” seem likely to support it — but the 94 members of the House Progressive Caucus have more than enough votes to control its fate.
Historically, most partisan bills are shaped by the preferences of the members of Congress closest to the middle, and their colleagues on the political extreme simply have to go along with it. When progressive Democrats threatened to vote against bills like Obamacare and the American Rescue Plan because they weren’t liberal enough, the threats were empty, because moderates preferred to vote for nothing than a more liberal bill. There was no real room to push the bills further left.
This time, the left has real power. Progressives can credibly threaten to sink a priority that moderates care about more than they do. The Democratic Party’s left flank has devoted much of its energy under Biden to making demands that are either substantively unrealistic or politically dicey. Now they have the opportunity to push for a policy that is neither, and which will help advance the goal of a successful Biden presidency. The House progressives’ moment has arrived.