The progressives strike back.

Onlookers thought they would fold. Instead, they've forced the two bills back onto a two-track process.
Isaac Saul Oct 4, 2021

Today's read: 10 minutes.

We're covering the progressives in Congress who dug their heels in. Plus, a question about intra-party divisions. Remember: If you want to listen, you can check out our podcast by clicking here.

Reps. Ilhan Omar (left) and Pramila Jayapal (right) are fighting to keep the party's two major bills linked together. Photo: Lorie Shaull from St Paul, United States

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Quick hits.

  1. More than 700,000 people in the United States have now died of Covid-19, making it the deadliest pandemic in U.S. history. Five million people have died worldwide. (The numbers)
  2. Reporting on a cache of financial records dubbed the "Pandora Papers" was released by a global consortium of journalists this weekend, revealing secret tax havens of world leaders and celebrities. (The reporting)
  3. An estimated 126,000 gallons of heavy crude oil has spilled into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California after an underwater pipeline leaked. (The impact)
  4. The Supreme Court denied a group of New York City teachers' request to block the city's vaccine mandate for educators. (The decision)
  5. Alex Jones was found legally responsible in two lawsuits for damages caused by his false claims that the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was a "giant hoax." (The lawsuits)

Today's topic.

The progressive caucus. And more specifically, how they dug in last week. Heading into Friday, there was a quiet confidence on Capitol Hill that Democrats in the House were going to be forced to pass the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill by their leadership, which would’ve effectively detached it from the larger $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill and handed moderates a victory (if you need to catch up on this whole dynamic, you can read our coverage of this from last week).

Essentially, by Thursday night, it seemed as if this would go one of two ways: Progressives would fold, pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill and give up their leverage on pushing through the larger $3.5 trillion spending package. Or they would dig in, sink the infrastructure bill, and put President Biden's entire agenda at risk. Given the stakes, the whispers from Capitol Hill were that progressives would almost certainly fold and that Pelosi would keep her promise to hold a vote on the bill. Instead, though, the nearly 100-member progressive caucus repeatedly insisted it would not budge, prompting a rare visit from President Biden to Congress.

And that's when things got interesting.

On Friday night, Biden did something very few presidents have ever done: He whipped up votes against his own bill. Biden told lawmakers not to vote on the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill he had helped negotiate until there was an agreement in place amongst Democrats on the larger, $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. The move essentially put the bills back on the two-track process, but also marked another turning point in the broader Democratic narrative: Progressives, in a moment when they might have historically backed down, are instead wielding their growing power.

Now, there are some major caveats here. Most notably, Biden has said the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill will be reduced to somewhere closer to $2 trillion. This is a major win for moderates, in their view, because they've said all along the bill's top line price was just too high. For progressives, though, linking the fate of the two bills back together is also a win — even if the topline price has come down — because it means if they get one, they will get both.

So where are we now? The bipartisan, hard infrastructure bill that will invest in roads, bridges, water pipes, public transportation and broadband internet is now once again being tied to the larger reconciliation bill (which will pass with only Democratic votes, if it passes) that is going to fund universal pre-k, two years of free community college, expand the child tax credit, expand Medicare, lower the price of prescription drugs, create fees for polluters, and a lot more. Democrats won't pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill until they have an agreement on the larger spending bill. Then they'll try to pass both simultaneously.

That means that the fight is now going to be over how to get the $3.5 trillion bill down to something closer to $2 trillion. What will they cut? What spending tricks will they use? And will it be enough to win the votes of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), who are critical to passing the bill in the Senate? Democrats have extended highway funding that was set to expire and given themselves enough runway to break the impasse by the end of the month.

We'll take a look at some reactions to these latest developments from the right and left, then my take.


What the left is saying.

The left is supportive of Democrats negotiating more, and avoiding the potential failure of both bills.

In The Washington Post, James Downie said "progressives finally have the political bulk to stand up to moderate and conservative Democrats’ brinkmanship."

"Poll after poll shows Americans support President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda — hence a broader shyness from Sinema and Manchin to explain what specific parts of the reconciliation package they want cut," Downie said. "And, as demonstrated on Capitol Hill in the past few days, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) has the numbers to derail bills it doesn’t like — or in this case, force moderates to stick to the original 'two-track' agreement that the infrastructure bill and the reconciliation package pass together.

"The only stunt here is the one being pulled by the moderates who are trying to pretend the two bills aren’t linked," he added. "To claim otherwise is to ignore months of news coverage repeating the link — coverage that, until recently, moderate Democrats made no real effort to rebut. Instead, it’s clear that a small minority of the caucus hoped to string the rest of the party along until the fall, in the hope that various deadlines would force progressives to abandon the reconciliation bill. A few years ago, that might have worked but not anymore."

In Jacobin Magazine, David Sirota and Andrew Perez attacked Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) for undermining the $3.5 trillion bill.

“The Democratic congressman leading the charge to undermine his party’s two-track strategy to pass President Joe Biden’s economic agenda was the US House’s biggest recipient of campaign cash from the private equity industry, whose executives could lose lucrative tax loopholes should that agenda become law," they wrote. "Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) has spearheaded a media tour and legislative campaign to pass a business-backed infrastructure bill separate from Biden’s reconciliation package — a maneuver backed by corporate lobbyists seeking to kill the latter because it will likely be paid for by taxes on the wealthy.

"In all, Blackstone executives have funneled nearly $200,000 worth of campaign cash to Gottheimer since 2015 — and his wife, Marla Tusk, works for a lobbying and consulting firm that lists Blackstone as a client," they wrote. "In the last election cycle alone, Gottheimer received more than $450,000 from donors in the private equity and investment industry, making him the US House’s top recipient of that money during the campaign, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets."

In Vox, Li Zhou said after weeks of talking past each other, Democrats finally have to negotiate.

"At stake is a massive social spending bill that includes dramatic expansions to Medicare, funding for free community college and universal child care, and huge investments in clean energy," Zhou wrote. "Given the ongoing negotiations, it’s unclear what the reconciliation bill will include, what its total spending will be, or how long it will take for a deal to come together. That talks are happening at all, though, marks some kind of progress.... [Progressives] have stood by a bill totaling $3.5 trillion and outlined five key priorities they want the bill to include: lowering prescription drug prices; investments in affordable housing; investments in climate jobs; funding for child care subsidies and paid leave; and a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, including DACA recipients."


What the right is saying.

The right is criticizing moderate Democrats, saying they have been abandoned by the party.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called it the "humiliation" of the House moderates.

"Josh Gottheimer was certain the House would vote Thursday to pass the Senate public-works bill, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi had promised," the board wrote. "How certain? '1,000 percent,' the New Jersey Congressman told CNN. By the end of Thursday, with no vote looming, Mr. Gottheimer was still confident that a vote Friday would save the day. 'It ain’t over yet!' he tweeted. 'This is just one long legislative day—we literally aren’t adjourning. Negotiations are still ongoing, and we’re continuing to work. As I said earlier: grabbing some Gatorade and Red Bull.'

"That wasn’t the only bull he was drinking,” the board added. "Friday came and went with no vote. To adapt Bruce Willis in Die Hard, welcome to the Democratic Party, pal. The progressive left isn’t merely 'a small faction.' It is the dominant faction, as Friday proved. Contrary to Mr. Gottheimer, Mr. Biden also doesn’t seem to think the left is destroying his agenda. He made a special visit to Capitol Hill on Friday and told Democrats he was fine with no infrastructure vote. He tanked the vote on his bipartisan bill by linking it to the partisan multi-trillion-dollar reconciliation bill. Mr. Gottheimer’s humiliation was merely the most public among House moderate liberals, who made the mistake of trusting the Speaker."

In Fox News, Liz Peek asked why Joe Biden has focused on Sinema and Manchin, and not progressives, in his persuasion efforts.

"Why not sit down with Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the head of the uber-liberal caucus that has stymied progress on his bipartisan infrastructure bill? Why no late-night calls to Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist who is clearly the shadow president and who has resisted calls to trim Biden’s monster spending package?" she asked. "We know why: there’s no point. The progressive wing of his party is immune to persuasion; they are ideologues who, through a bizarre twist of fate, suddenly hold the reins of power in our nation’s capital.

"What now? Joe Biden has bit off more than he can chew and is now trying to swallow reality," Peek wrote. "His visit to Capitol Hill, which many commentators took to signal that Democrats had struck a deal, was a major flop. The bipartisan trillion-dollar infrastructure bill being held hostage by progressives who insist they will not vote for it without getting a vote on their giant 'social infrastructure' package is still on hold; Biden’s presence, embarrassingly, changed nothing... not getting a bipartisan infrastructure bill across the finish line because progressives stand in the way is the ultimate humiliation for a president who famously promised to 'work across the aisle.' Biden probably didn’t imagine that it would be his own party, and not Republicans, who might torpedo his agenda."

Philip Klein wrote in the National Review that Manchin is a "fake fiscal hawk."

"On Wednesday, Manchin released a fire-breathing statement, much of which could have been mistaken for a National Review editorial," Klein wrote. “But here’s the reality. Manchin has already voted in favor of trillions of dollars in new spending in two bills this year alone. First, there was the $1.9 trillion spending bill passed in March. Though pitched as 'COVID relief,' only about 5 percent of the bill directly focused on pandemic-related spending. It funneled hundreds of billions of dollars to state governments, many of which were facing surpluses, and pumped more money into the insurance industry through an Obamacare expansion. None of the spending was paid for. He then led the charge for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes $550 billion in new spending. The bill, according to the CBO, would add $256 billion to deficits. In other words, Manchin has already voted for nearly $2.5 trillion in spending, of which just about 12 percent was offset — with the remaining $2.2 trillion being added to the debt. Keep in mind, this is on top of the $4.1 trillion in deficit spending on COVID-19 bills during the last year of the Trump presidency, all of which Manchin voted for."


My take.

It's clear the dynamics of the Democratic party are shifting.

On top of everything else we learned in the last few days, one of the most notable pieces of breaking news was the leak of a document showing Sen. Manchin signed an agreement with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in July. In the one-page agreement, Manchin calls for a $1.5 trillion topline in the reconciliation bill, and conditions it on all Covid-19 and American Rescue Plan funds already being spent. Schumer signed the bill with a note saying he would attempt to dissuade Manchin on many of his red lines.

The implications of that agreement were that Schumer, Manchin, and many House moderates always thought they'd be able to decouple these two bills, steamroll progressives in the House and then negotiate the reconciliation bill in a vacuum. Manchin's red line was drawn months ago, and negotiations moved forward with everybody knowing this would be a bridge they'd have to cross eventually. But most observers, certainly most of the "moderates" in the House, thought the progressive caucus would roll over. It turns out they were wrong.

I said last week I had no idea how this would play out, though I floated a "delay in the vote" as a potential — if not likely — scenario. It looks like that's where we are now. After weeks of promising the two bills were linked together, Democrats had a brief few days where it looked like the two-track process might break down. The Democrats who want to scale down the $3.5 trillion bill will celebrate the fact they are getting the topline number down, but make no mistake: This is a huge win for the progressive caucus. They now have the numbers — and, critically, the unity — to shake down the president, Pelosi, and even the Senate.

Of course, that, too, is an odd way to frame this whole thing. After all, the progressive caucus is simply trying to pass the agenda Biden ran on in 2020 (all the stuff he promised when he wasn't slamming Trump). And Biden seems to approve of their tactics, at least based on the leaks we're getting from behind closed doors on the Hill. It appears he knows the best — perhaps only — chance to get close to achieving everything in his agenda is to keep the bills tied together.

So, after a weekend of jockeying for position, the most likely outcome once again seems to be that these two bills will pass together. $1.2 trillion of infrastructure, and then a major fight between Democrats over where and how to spend something in the ballpark of $2 trillion on a bill that will need zero Republican votes to become law. Democrats have less than a month to sort out the details and get on the same page — and it could be their last chance to make any major reforms before they potentially lose a chamber in Congress next year.


Your questions, answered.

Q: At what point do you think these intra-party divisions result in fractures? What would AOC and the other progressives lose by setting up like Bernie? They don't seem to gain much from being Dems and they definitely seem like a risk for the party agenda more often than not.

— James, Houston, Texas

Tangle: Something I've picked up on from talking to readers and voters across the country is that there seems to be a general misconception about where the Democratic party is right now. When someone says "progressives," most people seem to think of The Squad or Bernie Sanders or this handful of Democrats who are "running" the party or holding it hostage.

But that's not really true. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has 95 members in the House of Representatives — that's out of 220 Democrats total. Meaning in the House, they are nearly half of the entire party. Of course, the CPC only has Bernie Sanders in the Senate, but there are plenty of deeply progressive senators: Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Alex Padilla, Raphael Warnock, Mazie Hirono, Jon Ossoff, Ed Markey, John Hickenlooper, etc.

There is a lot of nuance here, though. Democrats owe their majority to more "moderate" Democrats who win in districts that have a lot of ideological diversity among voters. As Matty Yglesias recently wrote, your median American voter is a white person in their 50s with no college degree. But the progressive caucus is standing behind the very agenda Biden ran on: Medicare expansion, climate change legislation, free community college and pre-k, parental leave, etc. If you believe Biden's win was about more than just anti-Trump sentiment, then there's a good case their agenda is representative of a huge swathe of the country. In other words, the progressives aren't all that extreme, nor are they outliers, and there's no reason to think they should break off from the party rather than just become the party.

As for when those fractures actually come, I'm surprised they haven't already. But as I've said before, the two-party system is deeply ingrained and supported by the entire infrastructure of campaign funding, media empires, and so on. It's extremely difficult to break out of, and whichever party fractures first would be conceding defeat in the near-term without unity, which nobody seems willing to do. At least not yet.


A story that matters.

The Dollar Tree retailer, which sells nearly everything for a dollar, as in its namesake, says it is planning to add more products at slightly higher prices, a sign of increasing costs for a range of goods. A combination of supply-chain snarls, a tight labor market and inflation is pushing costs of goods higher, and the retailer said the addition of more above-$1 items is a response to rising costs and consumer feedback on tests of higher-priced items. "Makers of products from diapers to cars face higher costs for materials, transportation and workers," The Wall Street Journal reports. "In many cases, manufacturers and retailers are raising prices, but some are hesitating to pass along these costs to shoppers. Some are betting inflation is a passing challenge or that consumers lack the appetite to absorb price increases. Many companies are working to negotiate with their suppliers further to shoulder more of the financial burden."


Numbers.

  • $6.3 billion. The amount of money Congress approved to fund the resettlement of roughly 95,000 Afghan refugees.
  • 18,000. The number of vaccine shots given to New York City school employees ahead of the vaccine deadline.
  • -28%. The drop in average daily cases of Covid-19 nationally over the last 14 days, according to The New York Times tracker.
  • 25,833. The number of new Covid-19 cases reported in the U.S. yesterday.
  • 285,058. The number of new Covid-19 cases reported in the U.S. on September 13.
  • 20. The number of military aircraft China sent into Taiwan's airspace yesterday, the second such incursion in less than 24 hours.

Don't forget...

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Have a nice day.

David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for identifying how people sense heat, cold, touch and their own bodily movements. The knowledge is being used to develop treatments for a wide range of disease conditions, including chronic pain, without the use of things like opioid painkillers. “The mechanisms underlying our senses have triggered our curiosity for thousands of years, for example, how light is detected by the eyes, how sound waves affect our inner ears, and how different chemical compounds interact with receptors in our nose and mouth generating smell and taste,” the committee wrote. Now, these scientists have opened the door to a whole new understanding of how we interpret our environment physically. The New York Times has the story.


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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