Here is what needs to happen for Joe Biden to have a successful domestic legacy: Democrats in Congress need to negotiate with themselves and determine what new social spending they agree on, and how they can agree to pay for it. That may very well happen. But it is not happening at the moment.
What’s happening instead is a series of escalating threats. The latest comes from a band of centrist House Democrats, joined by Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who preposterously warn that, if the bipartisan infrastructure bill does not pass the House next week, they will refuse to back any new domestic legislation.
If you recall, the genesis of this drama began over the summer, when a handful of centrist House Democrats decided to blow up the legislative strategy their party had in place for weeks by refusing to support a budget unless the House passed an infrastructure bill first. That gang, led by Josh Gottheimer, ultimately settled for a promise by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to bring up the infrastructure bill by September 27.
However, the hollowness of that victory became evident to the centrists this weekend, when House Progressives threatened to oppose the bipartisan bill when it comes for a vote. The Gottheimer Gang had simply assumed that bringing the bill to a vote, with Pelosi’s promise to try really, really hard to pass it even though its passage was not in her interest, would ensure passage. It doesn’t. They have simply set up a scenario where the bipartisan infrastructure bill fails, and the Democratic Party looks incompetent.
That’s where the new threat comes in. Via Playbook, Sinema and the renegade House Democrats now warn that, if the infrastructure bill does not pass next week, they will oppose any budget reconciliation bill, presumably forever:
Sen. KYRSTEN SINEMA (D-Ariz.) delivered a tough message to President JOE BIDEN at a private meeting Wednesday, we’re told: If the House delays its scheduled Sept. 27 vote on the bipartisan infrastructure plan — or if the vote fails — she won’t be backing a reconciliation bill.
Sinema is not the only moderate taking this stand. Rep. KURT SCHRADER (D-Ore.) — one of approximately 10 moderate Democratic House members playing hardball with leadership — said he and several members of their group are on the same page. Some of the lawmakers have conveyed that message up the chain to leadership and the White House. A senior Democratic aide confirmed the warnings.
“If they delay the vote — or it goes down — then I think you can kiss reconciliation goodbye,” Schrader told Playbook. “Reconciliation would be dead.”
So basically, the House centrists blew up their party’s legislative strategy, and got a concession as a reward. Then when they realized the concession they had won may not have been worth anything — indeed, prompting an early failed vote of their cherished infrastructure bill would have negative value — they counter-escalated with another threat.
Politico has the scoop on this new escalation, and conveys the threat in breathless terms, warning liberals it is extremely serious. “Multiple sources — including a senior Democratic aide and several in the centrist camp — tell us the left is misreading their colleagues,” the tip sheet says. But the threat is transparent nonsense.
The centrists are claiming that if the bipartisan bill fails next week, their optimal level of social spending will drop from whatever it currently is to zero dollars, and will remain at zero, even if that means the bipartisan bill fails.
If Sinema and the House centrists already oppose a reconciliation bill, then this threat is meaningless: They are demanding a ransom to release a hostage they plan to shoot regardless. The threat only works if they would otherwise pass a budget reconciliation bill, but will refuse out of pique if infrastructure fails.
Indeed, the credibility of their threat hinges on them placing enormous value on the timing of the infrastructure vote. If it passes next week, then (presumably) they will continue negotiating on a social spending bill. If the vote fails next week, then (they say) they won’t care what happens.
In reality, if the infrastructure bill fails next week, negotiations will continue. Sinema and the Gottheimer Gang will keep wanting the bipartisan bill to pass the House. (It’s a key part of the centrist campaign message, and the anchor of Sinema’s reputation as well.) It will still be possible for them to make assurances to liberal Democrats about social spending provisions they can support in order to get their cooperation on the bipartisan bill. There’s simply no rational reason why, after September 27, Sinema’s optimal scenario will be complete legislative gridlock, including the likely failure of her personal legacy bill.
Of course, it is still possible that Sinema and her allies would stick to this threat. Sometimes political leaders decide they need to follow through on irrational and self-defeating threats in order to establish their credibility. This very dynamic seemed to drive the Gottheimer Gang, which challenged the Democratic leadership, and then seemed to decide they needed to prove they were serious after a congressional reporter all but dared them to follow through on their threat.
This same need to prove you’re credible by doing something stupid also sometimes causes leaders to launch and escalate wars.
Still, House liberals would be silly to listen to House centrists threaten acts of political self-harm — strategies that would, in particular, harm centrists far more than they would harm the liberals. It is truly a threat straight out of Blazing Saddles.
What actually has to happen for Democrats to get out of this trap, in which both sides have to make escalating threats to each other and then back them up or lose face, is to have a real internal negotiation. Everybody recognizes Biden’s full slate of domestic policy reforms can’t get 50 Senate votes.
Democrats need to figure out what level of spending can pass Congress. The House centrists are perfectly rational in their desire to not have to vote for a big spending bill only for the Senate to cut it down later. They need the most centrist Democratic senators to cut to the chase and decide what they can vote for.
Manchin appears to be the key logjam. Earlier this month, he announced a “pause” on negotiating Biden’s social spending bill. This weekend, he told a business organization the pause might extend into 2022. Everybody realizes that pushing legislation into an election year, when endangered members of Congress go into full panic mode and focus entirely on campaigning, would create a much higher risk of complete failure.
Without Manchin getting down to brass tacks and announcing what he can actually support, centrists and liberals alike are stuck making escalating threats against each other in place of negotiation. The centrists want to live in a world where negotiations aren’t necessary, and they can simply force liberals to hope that maybe Joe Manchin will decide to negotiate a bill with them one day. The liberals won’t accept those terms, and they’re correct not to. If Sinema and the House centrists want their bipartisan infrastructure bill to pass, the person they need to start threatening is Joe Manchin.