With “Infrastructure Summer” giving way to “Midterm Political Test Kitchen Autumn”, do President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats have enough political capital left to pass their “Build Back Better” infrastructure agenda before it’s too late?
We checked in with Nevada’s three House Democrats and local labor movement leaders to see how that’s going. Though these three Democrats align themselves with different wings of the House Democratic Caucus, all three affirmed their commitment to help Biden “Build Back Better”.
With Labor Day behind us, here’s why Congressional Democrats need to get working ASAP.
Last time we checked in on Democrats’ infrastructure bills, the House passed the necessary budget resolution for the reconciliation package on a 220-212 party-line vote following the brief attempt by a clique of conservative House Democrats to force Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) to sideline the reconciliation package and instead immediately take up the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (or, the “bipartisan bill”). While Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), and President Joe Biden insist they want to pass both infrastructure bills, a few conservative Democrats on both sides of the U.S. Capitol have been attempting to decouple the two bills, which would likely result in the smaller “bipartisan bill” (with only $550 billion in new infrastructure investment) making it to Biden’s desk while the larger $3 trillion+ reconciliation package that includes Biden’s promised climate action plan, new affordable housing programs, Biden’s promised health care plan, new support for child care and home care, and additional Democratic policy priorities would be left to die on the legislative vine.
For months, progressive activists have been bristling over Biden’s pursuit of infrastructure while sidelining other policy matters that they see as urgent crises – such as voting rights, workers’ rights, LGBTQ+ civil rights, and abortion rights. On the latter, the U.S. Supreme Court again jolted the nation by allowing Texas’ SB 8 to be enacted while pending lawsuits work their way through the federal courts. A Texas state district court judge later blocked enforcement of SB 8, but anti-choice legislators in other states are already rushing to pass their own version of Texas’ six-week abortion ban in light of five Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices signaling they may not let Roe v. Wade stand for much longer.
If Biden’s “Build Back Better” infrastructure agenda falters due to a handful of conservative Democrats who refuse to cooperate with the rest of the party on what seemed to be settled strategy, that will likely mean a double whammy of blows to the White House: a crushing loss on what’s supposed to be the most popular aspect of Biden’s agenda, and confirmation to outside activists on their premonition that sidelining the rest of Democrats’ policy agenda for infrastructure was always a fatal mistake.
With Democrats here in Nevada and nationally preparing to defend their Congressional majorities in next year’s midterm election, they have three elections this fall that serve as midterm trial heats: the California Recall special election where voting is currently underway, and the regularly scheduled gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey this November. Early voting tallies and recent polling in California suggest that Governor Gavin Newsom (D) is well-positioned to survive the recall, and thus far Democrats appear to have the edge in New Jersey and Virginia, but Democrats will probably run into further trouble if they somehow lose in any of these three states where Biden won comfortably last year. Even if they’re not as swayed by the policy implications of Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda, Congressional Democrats certainly have political survival reasons to pass the infrastructure bills in order to convince more Americans that they deserve two more years to govern.
“We are not out of the woods right now. We have some providers who are choosing profits over people.”
– Michelle Maese, SEIU 1107
Yesterday For Our Future Nevada, a union-backed progressive advocacy group, and Building Back Together, a pro-Biden 501(c)4 that’s already begun to counter the growing barrage of Republican attack ads, held a virtual press conference with Nevada’s three House Democrats and local union leaders to talk up Biden’s full “Build Back Better” infrastructure agenda. As Susie Martinez (D-Las Vegas), the Nevada AFL-CIO’s new Secretary-Treasurer (and the sitting Assembly Member for District 12), kicked off the event, “Joe Biden has time and time again affirmed his support for the labor movement.” She also said, “We look forward to the future, and to what we have yet to accomplish.”
In addition to infrastructure investment, labor leaders also called for the Senate to take up and pass the PRO Act (H.R.842) that the House passed on a near party-line 225-206 vote in March. If it becomes law, the PRO Act will establish a national right to organize that supersedes state “right to work” laws (like Nevada’s) that restrict unions’ ability to collect worker dues, it will outlaw employers’ attempts to misclassify workers as “independent contractors” or “supervisors” in order to evade current workers’ rights laws (like what we’re seeing in California under 2020’s Proposition 22), and it will allow unions to hold elections digitally.
As their members have had to fight some local health care providers who subjected them and their colleagues to unsafe working conditions, SEIU 1107 Secretary-Treasurer Michelle Maese noted, “We had to take to the streets. We had to fight for real change.” She continued, “We are not out of the woods right now. We have some providers who are choosing profits over people. Some people can socially distance. They can choose whether to wear masks. They can choose whether to attend events. Our workers don’t have that choice.”
At AFSCME 4041, members have had to fight against the state government at times to ensure their collective bargaining rights, and they were on the receiving end of some painful budget cuts following last year’s 31st Special Session of the Nevada Legislature. As AFSCME’s Sonja Whitten noted, “We fought back, and we were able to lessen the severity of the budget cuts. We still had to live through some difficult cuts.” She also called on the Senate to pass the PRO Act, and she urged Governor Steve Sisolak (D) and the Legislature to fully restore state services with the American Rescue Plan funding that Nevada is now receiving.
“I am confident we will move on both [infrastructure] bills in the coming weeks.”
– Rep. Susie Lee
Though the full PRO Act still languishes in the U.S. Senate, labor leaders and workers’ rights activists were heartened to see that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) signaled their intent last month to include as much of the PRO Act as Congressional reconciliation rules allow in the “Build Back Better” reconciliation package. Other progressive movement leaders hailed Schumer’s and Sanders’ inclusion of climate action (including a Clean Electricity Payment Program that functions as carbon pricing), health care expansion (including new Medicare benefits and an extension of the Rescue Plan’s expansion of Obamacare premium subsidies), extension of the Rescue Plan’s Child Tax Credit, and two years’ worth of tuition-free community college.
However, due to Senators Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) threatening to halt the reconciliation package on the Senate side, along with a clique of conservative House Democrats led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) issuing their own threats on their side of the Capitol, House and Senate Democratic leaders are trying to complete their delicate two-track infrastructure bills dance in order to get both bills to Biden this fall. Manchin, Sinema, and Gottheimer have occasionally suggested that the “Build Back Better” reconciliation bill should be sidelined, delayed, or whittled down, but Pelosi and Schumer thus far are sticking to the two-track schedule that progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Senator Bernie Sanders demanded in exchange for their support for the smaller “bipartisan bill”.
As a member of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, one would think that Rep. Susie Lee (D-Las Vegas) would be inclined to back Problem Solvers Caucus Co-chair Josh Gottheimer’s mission. But during yesterday’s call, she made clear that she supports both infrastructure bills and the two-track agenda that Democrats had agreed upon earlier this summer. According to Lee, “The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is just one part of Biden’s plan to rebuild our infrastructure.” She later stressed the importance of the reconciliation package’s “care economy” provisions to Democrats’ overall economic agenda: “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.”
Lee then insisted that both infrastructure bills are priorities: “It’s a false choice that it’s an either-or.” She continued, “I have worked with our more conservative members in the House and the Senate. We have worked to get the infrastructure bill moving, but we have also secured a guarantee to move on the reconciliation package.” And in addressing concerns on whether the House can meet the September 27 deadline that Pelosi issued in order to quell Gottheimer’s insta-rebellion-lite, Lee said, “I am confident we will move on both bills in the coming weeks.”
“We can invest in physical and human infrastructure. We will do both. We have a guarantee from our leadership that we will do both.”
– Rep. Dina Titus
In her own response to Gottheimer’s attempt to blow up Pelosi’s legislative schedule, Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) insisted, “We can do both. We can invest in physical and human infrastructure. We will do both. We have a guarantee from our leadership that we will do both.”
She also placed the onus on Democratic Senators to change the filibuster rules that require this whole reconciliation process for Democrats to advance the “Build Back Better” package to begin with, along with holding back policy bills like the PRO Act. According to Titus, “We need to support the [Democratic Senators] who want to change the rules. We don’t need to see any more of our good bills go to die because of bad rules in the Senate.”
In addressing the House’s lack of bipartisan accord on workers’ rights and infrastructure investment, possibly even on the “bipartisan bill” now that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) is hinting that he might whip House Republicans against both infrastructure bills, Titus called on labor activists to help them get across the finish line: “Congress is having some real challenges, and we’re going to need your help to move this country forward. None of this is going to be easy, considering the Republicans are voting no on everything that comes up.”
“For decades, access to the American Dream has been out of reach to the American people. This Build Back Better budget puts the dream back in reach.”
– Rep. Steven Horsford
As he recalled his own political origin story in Nevada’s labor movement, as well as his long-time support for Biden, Rep. Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas) declared, “We’re proud to have a president who puts working families first.” And as he promised that he and his colleagues will follow through on Biden’s promise to “Build Back Better”, Horsford said, “We can do both, the bipartisan bill and the Build Back Better plan. We also make clear we’ll pay for it by making the wealthy pay their fair share.”
In an early rebuttal to Republicans’ “tax and spend” arguments against the two infrastructure bills, Horsford stated that as House committees begin to formalize and finalize the “Build Back Better” reconciliation package, “No one making under $400,000 per year will see their taxes increase.” Instead, Democrats are looking to reverse the 2017 Trump Tax Plan’s tax cuts targeting corporate entities and wealthy individuals to generate more revenue.
And as he sought to explain how and why Nevadans benefit from both of these infrastructure bills becoming law, Horsford pointed to the “Build Back Better” package’s affordable housing, child tax credit, “care economy”, and health care provisions as proof that Democrats will deliver the goods. “For decades, access to the American Dream has been out of reach to the American people. This Build Back Better budget puts the dream back in reach,” Horsford exclaimed. He then added, “Democrats are on the verge of delivering a historic tax cut for 90% of American families with children. This is what it looks like to deliver for America’s working people.”