The conventional wisdom about House Democrats has long been that the left would fold in a fight with moderates over the size of social programs, making concessions to get half a loaf instead of nothing, as they have before. That’s not the case anymore.
In the fight over Joe Biden’s agenda on Capitol Hill, the progressive caucus has stood their ground, with roughly four dozen members who are ready to vote down the moderates’ prized infrastructure bill until a broader reconciliation bill passes. On Thursday night, Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leaders punted the infrastructure over the progressive holdouts. In particular, they do not trust Senate moderates Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to support a reconciliation bill and its $3.5 trillion price tag and see the bipartisan bill, which both support, as leverage.
The House stayed in session late Thursday night as frantic negotiations were underway to find a formula that would allow Manchin and Sinema to support the reconciliation bill and thus free progressives to vote for the infrastructure legislation by Pelosi’s deadline of that same night. Negotiations continued Friday, with White House staff joining in, with the hopes of a deal being cut before the week is out.
The left’s distrust of Manchin and Sinema had been fueled by the duo playing coy about what provisions, if any, they wanted to see in a reconciliation bill. On Manchin, at least, progressives have made some incremental progress. He made his preconditions for a reconciliation bill public on Thursday, saying he wanted $1.5 trillion in spending. Sinema has not made her demands public, although a spokesman for her said in a statement that she “continues to engage directly in good-faith discussions” with Biden and Schumer to “find common ground.”
In recent days, members of the media have swarmed Pramila Jayapal, the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, with the same intensity once reserved for a key moderate like Manchin. “Love it or hate it, Jayapal is the first Progressive Caucus chair to make the position relevant in shaping the debate in years,” one veteran Democratic aide observed with admiration.
Their increased clout is a shift from the Obama years, which conditioned Democrats to expect the left to crumble under Biden during debates over Obamacare and the 2009 stimulus. “Some of our progressive values have become quite mainstream,” said Jared Huffman, a five-term Democrat from California. “I also think that sometimes in the past, our progressive community/caucus might have been treated as, or assumed to be, adversaries and outsiders and not had a seat at the table. And I think we’ve been treated as allies by the administration and by everyone else.”
Progressives are also buoyed by the sense of fatalism in so many Democrats about their party’s chances in midterm elections and see the reconciliation bill they want as a rare chance to pass transformative social legislation before Republicans return to power.
“For 40 years before Joe Biden took office, I think Democrats controlled the presidency, the House, and the Senate for four total years, two with Clinton and two with Obama,” explained Andy Levin of Michigan on Wednesday. “And, despite those four little years — and even during them — the working people of the country have gotten the short end of the stick, so that they don’t even believe in government. They are like, ‘What is government doing for me?’ This, the Build Back Better Act, does so much more for the people.”
The situation in the Democratic caucus bears a resemblance to the arch-conservative House Freedom Caucus, which notoriously tried to drag every key bill to the right and fueled government shutdowns and debt-limit standoffs in the process, against the wishes of Republican leadership. “The knock on the Freedom Caucus is they know how to start a fight but not how to end one,” Matt Gaetz of Florida, a member of that group, told Intelligencer. “The current energy from progressives seems to suggest that they will end it, they will bring down the infrastructure bill if it doesn’t pave the way to their spending ambitions.”
The lessons from the right go both ways, according to Gaetz. “The progressives trying to get their way now have observed the flaws that the Freedom Caucus used to try to get their way on health care,” he said. “The Freedom Caucus fundamentally ended up empowering McCain in the end to kill [Obamacare repeal] and I don’t think progressives want to do that with Manchin and Sinema.”