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Have Democrats Hit a Wall?

Slate logo Slate 9/20/2021 Jim Newell
a person standing in front of a microphone: Things have gotten complicated for Nancy Pelosi. Drew Angerer/Getty Images © Provided by Slate Things have gotten complicated for Nancy Pelosi. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Things are looking quite gnarly for Joe Biden’s agenda at the moment, as moderates and progressives in Congress are locked in an inane threat-off that mostly just threatens to derail everything Democrats have been working toward. If they want to avoid an outcome where nothing passes and the Biden administration is a legislative failure, Democrats will have to set aside the threats and attempt something that’s been missing throughout the process: Making the hard choices necessary to reach a deal.

Who made the first threat? Unearthing this would require an intensive excavation process. So let’s just start with the lay of the land. Moderates want to see a Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law, and are—at best—uncomfortable with the proposed multi-trillion reconciliation bill covering a broad swath of progressive priorities from health care to climate change. Progressives are—at best—indifferent to the bipartisan infrastructure deal, and are eying the reconciliation bill as their true prize. The objective of the party writ-large (such as it even exists anymore), and the Biden administration, is to pass both bills, the twin anchors of the president’s Build Back Better agenda.

To ensure that moderates wouldn’t walk after their treasured bipartisan deal was signed into law, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has chosen to sit on the bill since the Senate passed it. She threatened, to progressives’ delight, not to free it until the Senate had also sent over an acceptable reconciliation bill. But the speaker may have made an untenable pledge. House moderates last month issued their own threat: to block a critical vote unless Pelosi freed the Senate infrastructure bill. Moderates were able to get the speaker to agree to hold a vote on the Senate infrastructure bill no later than Monday, Sept. 27. But progressives were never going to be OK with that vote happening if they didn’t feel confident that their own bill, the multi-trillion dollar reconciliation bill, would also get its due.

There is no way that the Senate will pass a multi-trillion reconciliation bill by next Monday. That day is in one week. And so it fell on progressives in the House to issue the next threat. Congressional Progressive Caucus leader Pramila Jayapal warned last week that she had enough votes to tank the bipartisan infrastructure bill next Monday if it came to the floor.

You’ll never guess, then, how moderates responded.

As Politico reported Monday morning, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema—who takes turns with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin as the prevailing target of progressives’ ire—told Biden in a meeting that “if the House delays its scheduled Sept. 27 vote on the bipartisan infrastructure plan—or if the vote fails—she won’t be backing a reconciliation bill.” One of her moderate allies in the House, Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, similarly told Politico that “reconciliation would be dead” if the Sept. 27 vote is delayed or fails.

That brings us up to speed, as of midday Monday, on the latest volley between wings of the Democratic Party that, at this point, straightforwardly do not like each other. Now, how to view it.

It’s still worth looking at all of these threats as posturing. The glue holding everyone together is that no one wants to be blamed for the complete failure of the Biden agenda, with everything on roads, bridges, electric vehicles, health care, child care, climate change—everything—collapsing more beautifully than it would even in Mitch McConnell’s dreams. So they’re threatening each other, yes, but maybe, out of a shared sense of not wanting these years in power to go down as a joke , they can still figure this out.

Except, there’s a problem: One reason Democrats have arrived at this point, sitting atop a mountain of threats with no clear way forward, is that the threats have filled a void of difficult decision-making. At so many steps along the way, the call has been made to keep the process moving while punting on the substance. The $3.5 trillion compromise on overall spending—it used to be higher—was not a compromise made between 218 House Democrats and 50 Senate Democrats. It was made between Senate Democrats on the Budget Committee, to find a way to get a budget blueprint out of committee. They never got sign-off from Manchin and Sinema, but they kept it moving anyway. Last week, one House committee hit a wall trying to advance a drug-pricing component of the big bill, so another committee approved it, just to, again, keep things moving forward even though there’s no indication the provision has the support to make it into law. This entire “two-track process,” of dividing the agenda into a bipartisan bill and a reconciliation bill, was not created because it’s what the best-practices literature suggests is the ideal way to pass legislation. It was the only way to keep things moving when two factions didn’t trust each other.

Democrats are now at the point, with threats coming due in a week’s time, where keeping things moving may require addressing the underlying problems. That may mean reaching a broad-strokes deal, accounting for 218 House votes and 50 Senate votes, on what has the support to make the reconciliation bill and what does not. You know, the important stuff.

Or maybe I underestimate the ability of leaders to find creative ways to punt, again. But at some point, if a party can’t figure anything out without resorting to threat after threat, the prospect for moving the underlying, ambitious agenda through narrow majorities in both chambers can’t be that great.


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