As the path forward for Democrats’ infrastructure ambitions starts to take shape, the two wings of the party on Capitol Hill are each insisting that President Joe Biden is behind their vision of what should happen next—even if they don’t agree on what that is.
Last week, Biden and a bipartisan group of senators announced they’d struck a deal on a bill that would fund roads, transit, water systems, and other kinds of so-called “hard” infrastructure. That sort of measure should be easy; both parties agree on the need for those investments.
But the scope of that bill is meager compared to the multi-trillion dollar package progressives—and Biden himself—envisioned, with new spending for health and childcare benefits, climate measures, and other liberal priorities.
Such a bill could pass Congress without the cooperation of Republicans, if Senate Democrats were unified throughout the entirety of the partisan reconciliation process, which allows the party in power to pass certain spending items with a simple majority instead of the usual 60-vote threshold in the Senate.
With 51 votes in the Senate—once you count the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris—the only thing stopping Democrats from that sweeping infrastructure bill is, predictably, Democrats.
The Democrats standing in the way, however, want a bipartisan deal. And the progressives needed for that bipartisan deal fear that passing it without assurances on the larger reconciliation measure will mean that the reconciliation bill never gets done. And on the other end of this political catch-22, if the president and Democratic leaders assure progressives that they won’t do a bipartisan deal without a larger reconciliation bill close behind, then Republicans won’t agree to a bipartisan deal.
And so on and so forth until the last futile day of the Biden presidency.
To allay progressive fears, Biden seemed to promise last week that he wouldn’t sign one bill without the other.
“If only one comes to me, I'm not signing it,” Biden said on Thursday. “It's in tandem.” But after outcry from the GOP negotiators—and some concerns from Democratic moderates—Biden walked it back over the weekend.
“My comments also created the impression that I was issuing a veto threat on the very plan I had just agreed to, which was certainly not my intent,” he said in a statement.
Now, with both doors seemingly cracked open, the progressive and moderate wings of the party are convinced that their points of view are on equal footing with the president.
“I'm not saying we shouldn't consider both, but the bottom line is, we've got a very good, bipartisan, bicameral package on the table,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), a co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus that has met numerous times with the White House on infrastructure.
“We should put it on the floor,” he said, adding that the White House sees it the same way.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), a progressive freshman, told The Daily Beast he feels “very strongly” that Biden is committed to “making sure that the reconciliation bill happens concurrently with the bipartisan agreement.”
“The President is very committed to going green, to the racial equity piece,” said Bowman. “I think he means it when he says build back better.”
Sometime soon, something will have to give in this delicate balancing act. For the time being, however, Democrats seem content to play along in hopes of burnishing their own negotiating positions later—and giving Biden and congressional leaders time to devise a concrete path forward that might please everyone.
Their margin for error is so thin that a solution will actually have to please virtually every Democrat. All it would take is one senator or a few House members to derail a legislative package that could, if passed, define the Joe Biden era with historic infrastructure investments and a massive expansion of the social safety net. And which lawmakers have influence over the process will determine who this legislation helps—and how much.
“In general, the entire caucus understands that we’re all Joe Manchin and we can all tank this thing if we want to,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), chair of the House Budget Committee. “But the overall agenda is something we all support, and we’re going to end up voting for whatever it is.”
Most Democrats range from merely content to effusively enthusiastic about the emerging framework for a bipartisan infrastructure deal, which would create nearly $600 billion in new spending, paid for with a range of to-be-determined sources of funding that aren’t tax hikes.
That plan would also be the first and last pass at funding priorities like passenger rail and electric vehicle development. Republicans agreed to levels of investment on those fronts that are far below what most Democrats want.
It’s unclear if such a plan would get 10 Republican votes in the Senate, but the rest of Biden and Democrats’ jobs package would get zero. A price tag for the larger bill is unclear—progressives want to see north of $5 trillion funded with more taxes on the wealthy—as are the exact contents, though Biden and most Democrats want to see universal pre-K, mandatory sick and childcare leave, free community college, and a slew of other liberal education and workforce development measures in the legislation.
Biden plans to soon bring his pitch for this bill—the so-called American Families Plan—to the forefront. On a Wednesday call with House Democrats, top Biden adviser Anita Dunn said the president is gearing up to make his first major speech outlining the reconciliation bill.
“The president has told us to figure out a good place and to come up with a good speech for him to give next week around the Families Plan, so we have both parts of his economic agenda out there,” said Dunn, according to a recording of the call obtained by The Daily Beast.
If Biden is for now employing what one Democratic lawmaker called “strategic ambiguity,” the two congressional leaders have been unequivocal. After the bipartisan deal emerged last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said, “There ain’t going to be an infrastructure bill unless we have the reconciliation bill passed by the United States Senate.” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has also repeatedly backed a two-track approach.
Such commitments have cooled passions from progressives concerned that the broader bill they want could be sacrificed in the name of bipartisanship. “Nancy’s been unequivocal in how she’s talked about it,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), a former chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “If Nancy says that, I’m sure she’s going to stick to it.”
But there’s unease among moderates that a finished bipartisan deal could languish as a broader bill slowly rumbles through the legislative and political gauntlet of reconciliation. If a good bill they like is ready, some say, it would be foolish to have it collect dust and lose GOP support.
“The country needs to show that this place can actually operate in some semblance of bipartisan fashion, and I think that's why they shouldn't be coupled,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus.
Naturally, confusion currently abounds in the Democratic ranks about how this all might work in practice. One Democratic lawmaker, speaking anonymously to The Daily Beast to candidly describe dynamics, said they asked a half dozen different colleagues on the House floor recently about how both bills will get done. “I got a half a dozen different answers,” the lawmaker said. “So there is general flux right now on the approach here.”
If progressives are adamant about seeing a smaller deal and a reconciliation bill travel together, they may have some wiggle room based on what “together” means in practice.
“There’s probably a lot of room for interpretation in those statements,” said Yarmuth, referring to Biden’s statements.
Laying the groundwork for passing a bill on reconciliation requires approving a separate budget resolution, itself a time-consuming process—and one that would happen before a multi-trillion dollar bill even leaves the starting block. Yarmuth, whose committee oversees the reconciliation process, said that it “could be weeks or a month” between when a bipartisan deal is approved and when Congress takes up a more sweeping bill.
What Democrats will need to figure out is a way to keep the family together in the intervening period. How GOP leaders decide to approach the two tracks—something yet to be determined—will factor in added pressure on an already-difficult process, too.
As Yarmuth said, losing Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in the 50-50 Senate could doom either package. But Democrats have a five-seat majority in the House, which isn’t much better.
“Everyone always looks to the Senate like, ‘Oh my God, this is so hard to get stuff done,’ but Nancy Pelosi has to get Josh Gottheimer and Ilhan Omar to agree on the same thing. That’s a hard job,” said the anonymous Democratic lawmaker.
The plan that Biden and Democratic leaders are pursuing, this lawmaker continued, was hard. “But it’s the least hard of all hard things,” they said.