Now that “Infrastructure Summer” came and went without any legislation ready for President Joe Biden’s signature, Biden and Congressional Democratic leaders are now rushing to put together a final agreement on two bills that encapsulate a whole lot of Biden’s 2020 campaign promises. In case anyone still wonders why these “infrastructure talks” are stretching into autumn, here’s the full rundown.
How the hell did the “Democrats in Disarray” meme come to life, and why have Congressional Democrats faced such a severe governing crisis?
As has become “the new normal” on Capitol Hill, Congressional leaders scrambled to ram through a last-minute continuing resolution last Thursday to prevent a federal government shutdown… For now. But because Democratic leaders acquiesced to Republican leaders’ demand to exclude any debt ceiling increase or suspension from this continuing resolution, we still have two weeks before another government shutdown and sovereign default crisis potentially hits our breaking point.
Meanwhile, Democratic Congressional leaders dug themselves into further trouble with their own party. Early last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) indicated her plan to bring the $550 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (or “the bipartisan bill”) for a House floor vote last Thursday despite requesting more time to complete the $3 trillion+ Build Back Better reconciliation package. Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), and President Joe Biden had all previously promised to pass both bills, and Pelosi had specifically promised progressive House Democrats that she would only bring the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to the House floor once the House, the Senate, and the White House had a final agreement on Build Back Better.
That leads us to Schumer and the Senate: Inside a Politico story on Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and his public vagueness on Build Back Better is the revelation of a signed agreement between Manchin and Schumer where they both agreed to postpone further deliberations on Build Back Better until October 1, Manchin stated $1.5 trillion as his preferred total cost, he demanded that any new tax revenue past $1.5 trillion must go to “deficit reduction”, he demanded means testing for social safety net programs, and he demanded that the Energy Committee that he chairs should have “sole jurisdiction” over the clean energy standard at the heart of Build Back Better’s climate change section. Schumer included a “signing statement” where he stated his desire to change Manchin’s mind on his demands, yet this letter dated July 28 remained hidden from House Democrats and most of their Senate Democratic colleagues, even when Problem Solvers Caucus leader Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) demanded that Pelosi bring “the bipartisan bill” to a floor vote before the October 1 date that Manchin and Schumer had secretly agreed upon to restart Build Back Better negotiations.
So why is any of this “such a big deal”? Keep in mind that Pelosi, Schumer, and Biden all brokered this big infrastructure deal where Democrats would unite to pass “the bipartisan bill” that Manchin, Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), and conservative House Democrats preferred in exchange for a roughly $3.5 trillion comprehensive Build Back Better package that already marked a compromise among the Biden administration’s domestic policy agenda, moderate and conservative Democrats’ demands, and progressive Democrats’ hopes for more robust action on climate change, health care, public education, housing, and more. The main reason for both bills staying together is to ensure that both bills pass. Since the more conservative House and Senate Democrats are not even trying to reassure the rest of the party that they will keep this promise, House and Senate progressives concluded that the only way to prevent the conservative Democrats from gutting Build Back Better into a shell of its former self – or even worse, just killing the reconciliation package entirely – is for House progressives to withhold their votes for “the bipartisan bill” until a party-wide Build Back Better agreement is finalized.
If you want to talk about “the optics”, focus on “the optics” of how Democrats intend to answer voters’ questions on whether Democrats kept their prior promises.
While national media pundits enjoy spilling ink on how “progressive firebrands” like Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), and like Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) and Cori Bush (D-Missouri), are allegedly “throwing Democrats into disarray” by simply showing the receipts and demanding accountability among their colleagues, let’s also keep in mind how united the vast majority of Congressional Democrats are behind the climate change, health care, child care, housing, and other “human infrastructure” programs in the Build Back Better plan.
When we asked Nevada’s own House Democrats about the two infrastructure bills last month, all three publicly committed to supporting both bills. Even more specifically, Rep. Susie Lee (D-Las Vegas) – herself a Problem Solvers Caucus member – stated on Labor Day, “The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is just one part of Biden’s plan to rebuild our infrastructure. [… ] If we don’t have workers who are confident they can go back to work, then we won’t see the full benefit of the [“bipartisan”] infrastructure bill.”
Rep. Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas), another local swing district House Democrat, stated, “It’s a false choice to suggest we can’t do both. We need both bills to address the structural needs in our country. We need to address the human needs of our people.”
For all the bellyaching among Manchin, Sinema, Gottheimer, and their national media pundit enablers over “the optics for 2022”, imagine how hard it will be for Horsford, Lee, and Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) to return to the campaign trail next year with nothing to show for theirs and Biden’s promises to Nevada voters that Democrats would “Build Back Better” on climate change, health care, immigration reform, and all the other above mentioned issues. If House and Senate Democratic leaders essentially do what Manchin, Sinema, and Gottheimer are telling them to do, they’re only making it harder for their colleagues to win reelection, thereby risking their own positions of power.
“Why won’t they compromise?” Actually, most Democrats already have. Just a few holdouts have yet to.
WATCH: @RepAOC tells @margbrennan one way to met in the middle is to "fully fund what we can fully fund" and suggests scaling back the time table on how long some programs are funded for. pic.twitter.com/1mb8iFSJDt
— Face The Nation (@FaceTheNation) October 3, 2021
"There's no number on the table yet that… everyone has agreed to," Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal tells @DanaBashCNN when asked about the ongoing negotiations on the larger spending package. Adding, $1.5 trillion is "too small to get our priorities in." #CNNSOTU pic.twitter.com/KV2EZ3Ig49
— State of the Union (@CNNSotu) October 3, 2021
During the 2020 election cycle, Joe Biden managed to unite the right flank of the Democratic Party, the party’s left flank, and the rest of the party behind his Build Back Better plan that addressed multiple infrastructure and social safety net crises. Biden’s campaign platform already marked a compromise between moderate supporters of candidates like Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg who favored more restrained policy changes, and progressive and leftist supporters of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who demanded a more expansive “political revolution” full of “big, structural change”.
Progressives already dropped demands for policies like “Medicare for All” single-payer health care, anything labeled as a “Green New Deal”, universal free college and career technical training, and large-scale decriminalization in the immigration system, and Democrats have gone further in excluding items like an Affordable Care Act health insurance public option, a $15 per hour national minimum wage, and everything that blatantly goes against Congress’ reconciliation rules (such as their voting rights bills, gun violence prevention legislation, and the LGBTQ+ Equality Act) from the Build Back Better reconciliation package.
Early this summer Sanders prepared an initial Build Back Better framework that would have included $6 trillion worth of public infrastructure and social safety net investments, but the White House and Congressional Democratic leaders convinced House and Senate Democrats to unite behind $3.5 trillion worth of public infrastructure and social safety net investment – as in $350 billion per year, which is less than half of America’s annual military spending. Congressional progressives have already begun to respond to demands for dropping the total for public investment further, and Biden has already signaled he wants Democrats on all ends to compromise and reach an agreement, yet it remains to be seen where and how conservative Democrats like Manchin, Sinema, and Gottheimer are willing to compromise.
Let’s keep in mind what’s actually at stake, and let’s just tune out the usual Beltway noise.
Yesterday Washington Post reporter Annie Linskey blew up Twitter when she tweeted a photo of Biden, and captioned that he was “walking through a graveyard in Wilmington as his legislative agenda is dying in Washington”. In reality, Biden just walked out after his church concluded their mass service, the church just so happens to have a walkway that goes by its cemetery, and the church’s cemetery just so happens to house the graves of Biden’s first spouse Neilia, his daughter Naomi, and his son Beau. It was a classic media pundit cheap shot and aspiring “hot take”, yet this time the “hot take” ended up burning the pundit who sought to capitalize off it. (She later deleted the original tweet, then tweeted out a classic “non-apology apology”, then finally tweeted out a more direct apology.)
In so many ways, Linskey’s swing-and-miss “hot take” says a lot about the lack of understanding among most Americans on what Biden and Congressional Democrats are trying to do, as well as the lack of interest among most national media pundits over the actual policy, economic, and basic human survival ramifications of this Build Back Better reconciliation package and the overall “infrastructure talks”. Spoiler alert: There’s far more going on than Congressional progressives’ alleged refusal to “take the deal” that has yet to fully materialize.
As a climate reporter, it’s been frustrating to watch the legislative debate. By focusing on $3.5T as a big number, it entirely misses the economic context of climate change.
The costs will be astronomical, the losses huge.
Old budgets are not a good baseline.
— Abrahm Lustgarten (@AbrahmL) October 2, 2021
As we’ve been discussing for over a year, Democrats have a huge task on their hands in passing as much of their agenda as they can this year, then in convincing voters that they deserve another two years of a federal “trifecta” to enact more of their agenda. And as we noted last Thursday, America potentially faces some incredibly dangerous consequences should Democrats fail to convince enough American voters that American democracy is worth saving.
Ultimately, these “infrastructure talks” carry far more important policies and basic needs than the chatter over the fiscal top lines and “taking the deal” seems to suggest. We can’t afford to lose sight of this.
The cover photo was taken by me.