Democratic leaders were set to hold a House vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate — yet the White House adviser exerted no pressure on Jayapal to get progressives to vote for it, the aide confirms. Soon after, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) canceled the vote because it would have failed.
This underscores a critical element of the dance unfolding among Democrats: The remarkable absence of Democratic leadership pressure on progressives to drop their strategy of withholding support from the infrastructure bill to leverage centrists into supporting a robust reconciliation package.
This dynamic is key to understanding what might happen next — but also how it could all come crashing down.
This lack of pressure also came up on a conference call among progressive members after the vote was shelved. In it, Jayapal informed them there had been no White House or leadership pressure to vote for the infrastructure bill, the aide confirms.
In the through-the-looking-glass media coverage of the Democrats’ brutal slog to pass President Biden’s agenda, the story has often been that radicalized progressives are threatening to derail the whole thing, because they refuse to accept the “reality” that the final package must be in sync with what the conservative faction of Democrats says is “possible.”
But this gets the story wrong. In fact, the progressives’ stand on Thursday makes successful passage of Biden’s agenda more likely, not less. To be clear, it’s very plausible the whole thing could still implode. But if so, that lefty stand won’t be why.
By refusing to help pass the infrastructure bill, progressives helped secure more space for negotiations on the reconciliation framework. The reconciliation bill is the Biden and Democratic Party agenda: It’s made up of all the climate provisions, economic infrastructure and tax reforms designed to secure our decarbonized future and rebalance our political economy after decades of upward skew.
The centrists are the ones who oppose passing this agenda. For that framework, Manchin seems to be insisting on a top line of $1.5 trillion — less than half the $3.5 trillion target Biden wants — as well as making its welfare benefits less universal via means testing and its climate change provisions more friendly to fossil fuel interests. And it’s still unclear what Sinema wants.
But importantly, they all seem to be seriously negotiating. The key nuance here is that Democratic leaders would have preferred the infrastructure bill to pass Thursday, to bank this as a win, but at the same time, they didn’t lean very hard on progressives to help do this. They knew it wouldn’t work, because progressives are dug in, and it’s precisely because Democratic leaders have largely accepted this that success is more likely.
In short, the White House and Democratic leaders aren’t asking the left to function as their bad cop against centrists — but they know having a bad cop is useful. It’s spurring along these negotiations over the reconciliation framework. All this helps explain why that lack of pressure on the left is a critical ingredient.
So where does this all lead?
There are two obvious ways this all comes crashing down. One would be that Manchin and Sinema only prove willing to support a reconciliation framework that is so gutted that progressives reasonably can’t support it. The brinkmanship on the infrastructure bill continues, and neither passes.
The second would be that Manchin and Sinema get behind a framework that’s well short of $3.5 trillion but isn’t all that unreasonable. Progressives might keep opposing the infrastructure bill to try to leverage them up, centrists could balk, and the whole thing could implode.
In that latter scenario, progressives will have located their power but arguably overplayed their hand. That would be a terrible outcome for everyone.
It’s also worth noting that once there’s a deal on a framework, the White House and Democratic leaders very likely will ratchet up pressure on progressives to pass the infrastructure bill. That will shift the dynamics considerably: It will be very hard for them to resist that pressure.
For now, however, what’s been confirmed is that the progressive bloc has found a constructive way to exercise their power. This moment was a long time in coming: You may recall that progressives tried to win key concessions on the Affordable Care Act but that ended in ignominious failure.
Here’s the bottom line: The idea that centrists in the party should get to dictate what’s “possible” is a more serious threat to the Biden agenda than progressives are. If progressives can successfully dispel that idea, it become more likely, rather than less, that a robust version of the Biden agenda passes. And the White House and Democratic leaders appear to know it.