Will Progressives Really Sink Joe Biden’s Agenda?

Congressional Democrats’ high-stakes internal standoff is about to come to a head.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images/Shutterstock
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images/Shutterstock

On Tuesday afternoon, Pramila Jayapal walked into Nancy Pelosi’s office in the Capitol bearing a threat. The leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus told the speaker of the House that she and some 50 colleagues would torpedo a cherished bipartisan infrastructure bill unless their demands on a separate, far more expensive bill were met. After the meeting, when a reporter asked Jayapal if she and the caucus were bluffing, her response was simple: “Try us.”

Jayapal, 56, is not a traditional congressional power broker. The first Indian American woman ever elected to Congress, she rose from Seattle’s left as a civil-rights activist to become the first solo leader of congressional progressives in over a decade. Progressives had long been relative team players within the Democratic caucus. Now, they are no longer playing nice as they fight a group of moderates, with Joe Biden’s legislative agenda caught in the crossfire.

The effort by progressives to flex their muscle and shift the center of power on Capitol Hill further to the left is a change from the last time there was a Democratic trifecta, during the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Back then, legislative pressure repeatedly came from moderate and conservative Democrats. “There were maybe 30-some Blue Dogs. Now there are many more progressives and we are in the ascendency because we want to make progress for the people,” Michigan representative Andy Levin told Intelligencer.

The fight is over two different pieces of legislation, which form the centerpiece of Biden’s domestic agenda. One is a bill passed by the Senate in August on bipartisan lines that would spend nearly $1 trillion on infrastructure. The other is a $3.5 trillion grab bag called the Build Back Better Act that would vastly expand the social safety net and combat climate change by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations. It would be passed in the Senate through reconciliation to dodge a Republican filibuster there, then have to get through a House with only four votes to spare. The reconciliation bill contains decades of liberal goals, and by tying the bills together, they hope to ensure that moderates seeking infrastructure spending would have to support both.

That was the plan until a rebellion by a group of nine moderates, led by Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, who pledged in August that they would vote down the reconciliation bill unless they got an immediate vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. They settled for a deal with Pelosi in which the bipartisan vote would be pushed until this Monday, September 27. In response, progressives said they would vote against the infrastructure bill until the reconciliation bill was passed by the House to regain their leverage over the moderates. “I’m fully prepared to vote for [the bipartisan bill], but … the reason I would vote no is that I believe there are members that would say ‘I’m done, I’m done’ and that actually moving forward on our Build Back Better bill would be lost,” Jan Schakowsky of Illinois told Intelligencer.

Gottheimer insisted her fears were unfounded. “We agreed to proceed and we have been. So if we didn’t want to be talking and working about it, we wouldn’t work on it,” he said of the reconciliation bill, though he demurred at mentioning its tentative $3.5 trillion price tag. “The bottom line is we all publicly said we are going to [support the bill] so I don’t know what else to say.”

Progressives aren’t just wary though of moderates blocking the reconciliation bill, they worry that they will try to drastically shrink it as well. Both bills had already been whittled down, with the reconciliation bill’s initial price tag at $6 trillion. “We don’t see much reason to negotiate down,” insisted Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, who led the progressive caucus before Jayapal.

Looming over all of this are Senate moderates Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. House moderates say they are wary of voting for anything without the seal of approval from the two senators, who could sink whatever the lower chamber passes when it arrives in the Senate. In the House, at least ten Republicans have said they would vote for the bipartisan bill, and each one of them who hops onboard diminishes Jayapal’s leverage over Pelosi. So far, Jayapal is sticking to her guns: She tweeted out Friday afternoon, “Why are we waiting to vote for the infrastructure bill until after we pass the Build Back Better Act?? Because we’re not willing to leave behind child care, paid leave, education, housing, health care, climate action, and a roadmap to citizenship. Let’s deliver on ALL of it.”

Yet for all the chaos, backbiting, and distrust, there was still the sense among Democrats that something would get done. As one member pointed out to Intelligencer, progressives needed a deal more than moderates because, as Jayapal’s tweet shows, they ran on transformational change. Even a pared down version of the reconciliation bill would be the most comprehensive piece of progressive legislation in a generation. Moderates don’t feel that incentive. After all, they didn’t run on transformational change. But they can’t go too far overboard either. Torpedoing Biden’s legislative agenda would be disastrous for all Democrats on the ballot in 2022.

The challenge now for Biden and Pelosi is to get both factions to disarm and pass both bills. However, just by taking the bipartisan bill hostage, Jayapal has shifted the balance of power in the caucus further toward progressives. The coalition of Democrats willing to vote against the bipartisan bill doesn’t just include the usual suspects from “the Squad,” but members like Yvette Clarke, a product of Brooklyn machine politics, and Brendan Boyle, a strong Biden ally who represents northeast Philadelphia.

Leaving the Capitol on Thursday afternoon, Jamaal Bowman of New York, an ardent progressive, said, “It feels like the beginning of the second half of a football game. We still have the second half to go, Sunday and Monday is the fourth quarter.” And when asked if it might go to overtime, he replied, “Man I don’t know, I don’t know.”

Will Progressives Really Sink Joe Biden’s Agenda?