Democrats are finally nearing the end on a legacy-defining win for President Joe Biden and the party. But for them to cross the finish line, progressives will have to accept a bill that’s far less than what they wanted—handing a win to moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ)—while the left swallows yet another social welfare spending half-loaf.
And yet, they’re happy to do it. For the most part.
“I got a trillion-and-a-half of progressive wish list items, instead of every wish list item? So, at Christmas, I have 20 presents instead of 30 presents under the tree?” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), a former chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said. “I think I’m still gonna open the 20. I’m not going to say, ‘Mom, Dad, tell Santa to come back and take them away.’”
Progressives hoped the proposed spending package would fulfill the promises Democrats campaigned on for years: expanded Medicare coverage for vision and dental benefits, immigration reform, free community college, a new clean electricity standard, universal paid leave, and a permanent extension of direct payments to most U.S. families.
Under their thin and ideologically fractious majorities in Congress, however, it was always going to be a long shot that Democrats would convert all of these lofty goals into reality.
But few anticipated just how many of those campaign promises would end up on the cutting-room floor, as Manchin and Sinema leveraged their ambivalence about passing anything in the 50-50 Senate to slash $2 trillion from a proposed $3.5 trillion package.
This week, with a deal in reach that would seal the defeat of so many of their goals, progressives aren’t despairing, or threatening to blow up the delicate balance of power. Instead, they’re claiming the so-called Build Back Better as an unequivocal win.
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) argued the bill shows Biden is “the first president” Democrats have had in the modern era who understands the need for major societal investments.
“Any individual bill which provided universal pre-K would be a major legislative achievement,” Yarmuth said. “Any bill that set up affordable, quality child care would be an astounding accomplishment. All of these elements, standing on their own, I think are incredibly important. So I don't apologize for any of it.”
Another liberal Democrat, Rep. Jared Huffman of California, said for those claiming progressives were making the perfect the enemy of the good, “perfect left the building a long time ago.”
“We are so far gone from perfect that it’s laughable,” he said. “Progressives have been pragmatic, we have been the upholders of President Biden’s agenda, and we are prepared to accept a fraction of what we hoped and dreamed we could accomplish here.”
Many progressives genuinely agree with these points. Politically, however, they have little choice but to do what Speaker Nancy Pelosi privately urged them, and “embrace” the bill that they have.
Some lawmakers may have thrown down would-be red lines—saying they would not vote for a bill that did not contain this or that priority—but few believe a critical mass of progressives would tank a bill for not being enough.
As the White House and Democratic leaders have always known, if the choice is $1.5 trillion or $0, they’ll take what they can get. As one lawmaker who wished to remain anonymous put it, liberals “wouldn’t sink the child tax credit [or] significant climate action. I think that’s B.S.”
The ability of progressives to play legislative hardball has always had a powerful limiting factor: These are the members, by and large, who most want to pass something the most.
That understanding has weakened the ability of liberal lawmakers to actually impose their will on the Build Back Better agenda.
On Tuesday, Yarmuth recalled to The Daily Beast the candid reality check he’d given his colleagues at a morning meeting. “I said, ‘You can posture all you want, you can say what you’re for or against, but in the end, you’re going to vote for whatever it is,’” Yarmuth said. “‘Just realize that!’”
The direction of negotiations, however, seems tailor-made to test progressives’ resolve—and, seemingly, even more moderate lawmakers.
On Wednesday afternoon, lawmakers confirmed that Manchin had successfully pushed for the elimination of a paid family leave proposal that was almost universally popular in the party. Pelosi was reportedly using the paid leave plank as a rebuttal to Democrats who were displeased that the legislation was not bold enough.
Now, that key part of her sales pitch is gone because Manchin just didn’t want it.
Still, there is plenty for Democrats to be excited about in the bill, and on a number of fronts, there’s a policy equivalent of Christmas morning. There is reportedly agreement on including over $500 billion of investments in climate action, fulfilling a top promise for many Democrats. And they’re poised to secure some $350 billion for child care programs and early education.
But the unceremonious removal of the paid leave policy immediately prompted questions of just what, exactly, Democrats were fighting for, as did the whittling down of the child tax credit benefit, the endangering of Medicaid expansion, and a number of other items.
Progressives, though, have a more immediate challenge to grapple with as Democrats close in on a deal—one that figures to divert their time and energy from the string of policy defeats unfolding this week. And this may be one fight they won’t back down from.
Party leaders are pushing for the House to finally vote on a separate, $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that the Senate approved in August.
A month ago, moderates attempted to force a vote on that bill, but progressives stood unified in a threat to tank it until there was more progress on the Build Back Better Act. Their success, in part, came because they could credibly claim Biden had asked for the two bills to travel together. Many felt they had the White House’s tacit blessing in the gambit.
With a deal on the broader package close but not yet in hand, Biden and top leaders seem to be saying that the two planks of their agenda are now traveling closely enough.
A growing number of Democrats are anxious for any progress, especially ahead of next Tuesday’s statewide elections in Virginia and New Jersey. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Virginia, is facing a tough race and has all but begged Democrats to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is seen as an easy win.
The Democrats in the middle of the ideological spectrum are often overlooked in this debate, but they clearly favor a vote on the infrastructure bill this week. Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA), chair of the center-left New Democrat Coalition, said her 90-plus members are ready to break out of the impasse now, not later.
“I come from a purple district, a lot of our members come from purple districts, if there’s one kind of unifying thing that we hear from constituents is they want to see governance work again,” DelBene told The Daily Beast in an interview on Wednesday.
“To folks at home, we have the majority in the House, we have the majority in the Senate, and we have the White House,” she continued. “We may have small majorities, but for folks, it’s like, we want to see governance work, make decisions, and put good policy forward.”
Progressives have held firm, however, that they will not vote for the infrastructure bill without also getting the text of a broader bill and a party-wide agreement on that text. Pelosi is pushing them to accept a looser framework of agreed-upon programs and funding amounts—a point of view that Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, endorsed on Twitter.
The emergence of some daylight between progressives and the White House does not seem to bother the former.
Some liberal lawmakers believe that their insistence on holding up the infrastructure bill has kept centrists like Manchin and Sinema at the table on the broader bill and prevented other moderates from slow-walking the package.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), a Progressive Caucus member, argued there “would not be discussions about Build Back Better” unless they had stopped the infrastructure bill a month ago.
Johnson allowed that “even if there is some daylight” with the White House, “I think the Progressive Caucus is committed to seeing through our original game plan.”
Decoupling the infrastructure bill with the broader reconciliation package is the one fight progressives don’t seem apt to accept.
Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) said Wednesday night on CNN that every Democrat needed the Build Back Better Act to pass, and that Manchin and Sinema ”need to quickly get their act together and figure out how we’re going to get this thing done.”
She said progressives were ready to accept a deal, but they needed assurances that there was a deal—and that the infrastructure bill and the larger social spending package would both become law before the House passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
“There’s not a lot of trust,” Jayapal said. “I have spoken to Senator Manchin quite a bit. I believe that if he gives his word, I have to take him at his word.”
“But,” she added, “he’s got to agree first.”