After going in circles for months, Joe Biden had finally cleared a path forward in Congress for his signature social-spending plan, the Build Back Better Act. He came to Capitol Hill on Thursday to sell a framework for the plan that he hoped would unite the warring factions of the Democratic Party. “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week,” he said to a conclave of congressional Democrats in a Capitol Hill basement. Speaker Nancy Pelosi then urged a vote on the infrastructure bill that day so that Biden would have a victory by the time his plane arrived in Europe, the outset of a major foreign trip on which he would represent the U.S. at a climate-change summit in Glasgow. He landed empty-handed.
Yet for all the familiar vibes on Capitol Hill, where it seems like there is an artificial deadline creating a manufactured crisis for Biden almost every week, the president had notched a real win: Progressives accepted the framework he had crafted to meet Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema’s demands in particular. There was a congressional committee already going over the actual text of the social-spending bill and the increasing likelihood that the situation would have improved by the time he returned to Washington.
Biden has been in the role of a circus rider since summer, trying to get both progressives and moderates to join in support of his agenda. House moderates have been eager to pass the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which was already approved in the Senate by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, but wary of the size and scope of the Build Back Better bill, recently tagged at $3.5 trillion. Progressives have been doing their utmost to make the social-spending plan as comprehensive as possible and loath to give up their leverage over moderates — i.e., the infrastructure bill — until the social-spending legislation is agreed to by Manchin and Sinema.
Progressive distrust of those two was already high thanks to the significant compromises the pair of senators forced on the left and what progressives saw as the constantly moving goalposts of what they found acceptable. Bernie Sanders had originally touted a figure as high as $6 trillion and authorized a bill allowing up to $3.5 trillion to be spent. But the top line of the framework has now been brought down to $1.75 trillion. The Trump tax cuts would be left fully intact, the federal government would not be allowed to negotiate to reduce the cost of prescription drugs, and the United States would remain the only industrialized country not to offer paid family leave.
After Biden spoke on Thursday, progressives plotted their next steps and whether to take half a loaf instead. “The question all of us are going to have to answer is: Do we vote against a bill that contains provisions we all support because it doesn’t contain all the provisions we want?” said Peter Welch. The answer was an enthusiastic yes to voting for it from almost every progressive. As Ilhan Omar told reporters, “As a caucus, the progressive caucus is happy with this framework and eager to push it through.”
That didn’t mean they were ready to support the infrastructure bill.
With Manchin and Sinema remaining cryptic about a framework deal crafted to satisfy them, progressives held firm in refusing to support a vote on infrastructure. Juan Vargas of California told reporters, “I don’t trust what the senators are going to do … they have to commit. If they don’t commit to it, then I’m a no because then we will lose Build Back Better.”
In a potentially positive sign, Sinema did have a Thursday afternoon meeting with Pramilia Jayapal, the leader of the House progressive caucus. Still, there remain all sorts of choke points for the legislation, including members who previously pledged to vote against any deal that does not include immigration reform or remove the cap on state and local income-tax deductions.
So even if the long-term prognosis looks better, the short term was doomed: No legislative successes to herald in Europe, and nothing for Terry McAuliffe, the increasingly beleaguered Democrat running for governor in Virginia, to woo swing voters with ahead of Tuesday’s election.