Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
the national interest

Gottheimer’s Suicide Squad Hurt Their Party But Gained Nothing

Democrats have five weeks to get their act together.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Until 11 days ago, the Democratic Party had a unified strategy to advance President Biden’s legislative agenda. The plan was to pass two bills: a bipartisan infrastructure deal favored by the moderates and a partisan social-welfare bill favored by progressives. The moderates couldn’t get their bipartisan bill without the progressives, and the progressives couldn’t get their partisan bill without the moderates.

Nine House Democrats blew up the deal. After refusing to support the House budget vote, they extracted a promise to vote for the infrastructure bill by the end of September. But the upshot is the same as ever: Both factions need to cooperate with each other to get their bills. Either both will pass, or neither will.

The nine rebels, led by Josh Gottheimer, claimed their intention was merely to make sure the bipartisan bill didn’t perish, on the pretext that a ten-year infrastructure plan had to be passed right away in order to get shovels into the ground.

A number of reporters and commentators have taken Gottheimer’s reasoning at face value. But Gottheimer’s motive had very little to do with the infrastructure bill. What he wanted was to gain leverage over the other bill. If infrastructure passed the House first, he and other moderates would be able to negotiate from a position of one-sided strength, or walk away from the table entirely, on the reconciliation bill that will form the basis of Biden’s domestic legacy.

The Gottheimer 9 didn’t get the promise to vote on the infrastructure bill before voting on the rule. They only got a promise to vote on it by September 27. Importantly, while they have a promise to bring the bill to the floor, they have no assurance the infrastructure bill will pass. Unless large numbers of Republicans vote for it — a prospect that currently appears unlikely — the infrastructure bill will still need overwhelming support from the Democratic caucus. And getting that means making a deal with the liberals on the reconciliation bill. The negotiating dynamics haven’t changed.

September 27 can serve as a deadline for Democrats to make some kind of internal agreement on the reconciliation bill. Moderate Democrats in the Senate have already said they won’t support the full $3.5-trillion-over-ten-year spending plan passed by the Senate Budget Committee. What they need to do over the next five weeks is settle on a number acceptable across the party. If they don’t, liberals in the House can probably vote down the bipartisan bill, knowing they can always turn around and approve it later once a deal is in hand.

What does seem to have changed is the disposition of the rest of the party toward the Gottheimer 9. The spectacle of a tiny faction throwing the party into disarray and breaking an informal understanding that their margins were too narrow to permit individual members to make extravagant personal demands seems to have generated enormous resentment. Politico reports that House Democrats vented their anger at the Gottheimer 9 at a caucus meeting. Democrats from Trump-leaning districts have either abstained from joining Gottheimer, or — like Representative Susan Wild — openly pleaded with them to back down.

The primary success of Gottheimer’s rebellion has been to seize for himself and his band the coveted “moderate” label. News reporters who had once used the “moderate” description for a different, larger faction of Democrats from purple districts now apply it to Gottheimer and his allies — the majority of whom come from safe Democratic seats. Whatever concerns they harbor about the reconciliation bill — specifically its higher taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals — it’s not reelection.

Indeed, not only do most of the House Democrats who used to be identified as moderate still support the Biden-Pelosi strategy of negotiating the two bills in tandem, so do Third Way and the New Democrat Coalition, the main institutions associated with the party’s center.

Gottheimer’s plan was always unlikely: He wanted to extort the vast majority of his party into surrendering its negotiating leverage to him, but his plan required them to cooperate by voting for the bill he wanted to pass, on his schedule. What he succeeded in doing was gumming up the works in Congress, increasing the perception that Biden’s party couldn’t govern, and cementing a media narrative that benefited him personally at the expense of Democrats most in danger of losing their seats.

The House Suicide Squad Hurt Their Party But Gained Nothing