House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and President Joe Biden both informed the nation that the hard-fought bipartisan infrastructure bill didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hell until the much larger Democrat-led social and environmental package cleared the budget reconciliation process. With such a threat, Pelosi may have tried to force the more radical larger effort onto the agenda, but moderate Democrats have decided to play the party’s leadership at its own game. Now that the smaller legislation has passed the Senate, nine House Democrats have threatened to vote against the $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” proposal unless the bipartisan bill makes it to Biden’s desk and is signed into law. Pelosi and her progressives aren’t budging – but, so far, neither are the centrists. Will one side break in this game of congressional chicken, or is a legislative lockdown on the horizon?
Challenging Queen Nancy?
On August 12, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and eight colleagues urged Speaker Pelosi to allow a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill before the budget resolution. “With the livelihoods of hardworking American families at stake, we simply can’t afford months of unnecessary delays and risk squandering this once-in-a-century, bipartisan infrastructure package,” the letter implored. “It’s time to get shovels in the ground and people to work. We will not consider voting for a budget resolution until the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passes the House and is signed into law.”
Along with Gottheimer, Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-GA), Filemon Vela (D-TX), Jared Golden (D-ME), Henry Cuellar (D-TX), Vicente González (D-TX), Ed Case (D-HI), Jim Costa (D-CA), and Kurt Schrader (D-OR) signed the missive. For some on that list, the letter merely echoed what they had been saying individually for weeks.
The queen D isn’t giving in, however. “Our Caucus remains united in realizing President Biden’s vision to Build Back Better: creating jobs,” Pelosi declared in a letter of her own nearly a week later. “While the bipartisan infrastructure bill offers important progress, it is not reflective of the totality of Democrats’ vision.” In a new rule proposal – backed by Biden, of course – the speaker plans to bring the bipartisan bill, the reconciliation resolution, and the new “John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021” when the House gets back from its break on August 23. Naturally, the first item on her rocket docket is the $3.5 trillion progressive prize – not the bipartisan bill.
Partisanship or Patriotism?
An interesting double standard exists within the language used by Pelosi and her pals. “The budget resolution is the key to unlocking the 51-vote privilege of the reconciliation path for our transformative Build Back Better bill,” the speaker wrote. She then said the House must pass the budget immediately. Of the several very one-sided benefits of this course of action, the most important – in her words – is preserving that 51-vote privilege. Any delay “jeopardizes the once-in-a-generation opportunity” to pass a boatload of progressive priorities. It’s essential, she explained, that the House pass the budget resolution to “move forward united and determined to realize President Biden’s transformative vision and deliver historic progress.”
Pelosi’s pressure campaign was joined by White House Spokesman Andrew Bates, Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR). “All three [bills] are critical elements of the President’s agenda, and we hope that every Democratic member supports this effort to advance these important legislative actions,” Bates said in a statement. “I would hope that none of us would do or say anything that would jeopardize passing these bills,” Clyburn told the Caucus Tuesday. “These bills are critical to maintaining our majority, and that must reign supreme.” DeFazio wrote in a letter that the bipartisan bill “falls short on many priorities of the House.”
Not a single time does the term “partisan” appear in any of these descriptions. When the Democrats take the advantage and run with it, ignoring the GOP entirely, it’s essential to ensure that once-in-a-generation progress can be made. But what of the various state voting laws the Dems hope to overpower by federalizing elections? Oh, well, they’re partisan – and racist, of course.
A Progressive Prize or Liberal Letdown?
To pass the budget resolution, Pelosi and her progressive pals need nearly all the House Democrats. No Republican is expected to back it, so losing more than three in her own party means the speaker’s big play will fall flat. Will all nine objectors remain steadfast? Probably not. Those who draw their lines in the sand much closer to the middle of the ideological spectrum tend to be more willing to give in and step across than their radical colleagues. Still, unless at least six of the nine cave, Pelosi is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Does she stand down and put reconciliation on the back burner – not to mention tanking her credibility as a party leader? Or does she stay the course and see the biggest progressive prize the left could hope for wither and die?
Adding another wrinkle, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) threatened the bipartisan bill itself. If Democrats don’t pass it first, the GOP may well abandon it, leaving House leadership unable to push it past the handful of progressives who may feel it doesn’t do enough to be worthy of their votes. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel for Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, and Congress is barreling down the tracks, full speed ahead. Whether it’s the sunshine of success or a train wreck waiting on the other side, however, remains to be seen.
Read more from James Fite.