Before we get to taking stock of where the effort to salvage Biden’s big legislative initiative stands, the “Build Back Better” label’s abject lameness signifies why negotiations among House progressives and moderates, the Senate, and the White House went off the rails. If the “back” part was openly “Back to the New Deal,” it might make a smidge of sense to the great unwashed public. But a grab bag of social and climate change programs, which is stuff many voters ought to like if explained properly, instead has such a flabby name that there’s good reason to wonder whether it’s a very pricey but largely empty box. And the focus in the press and even among many of the principals, on the price and not the content, has only reinforced this concern.
Yes, it was good fun to see Nancy Pelosi having to pull back a scheduled vote not once but twice because she could get the progressive bloc led by Pramila Jayapal to fall in line. Yes, the House progressives not only drew blood, but even got Joe Biden to trek to the House to pour oil on the water. However, the progressives are already retreating.
Do not forget that the progressives already made the concession of agreeing to reduce the top line for the “Build Back Better” bill to $3.5 trillion over ten years, down from the original $6 trillion, in return for having the bill passed in tandem (via reconciliation) with the smaller, supposedly $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which represents only $550 billion in new spending. The Senate effectively reneged on both by sending only the infrastructure bill on and insisting it be passed on an up/down vote, no amendments.
Even after Biden’s lèse-majesté appearance, he and Pelosi were not on the same page, with Biden trying to appear relaxed about the progressive revolt and saying the legislature could take all the time it needed to sort his bills out, versus Pelosi in wrangler mode, saying there would be a new vote within a month. Narrowly this is correct since at a minimum Congress would need another extension by then to transportation funding to prevent furloughs. Biden was also not too subtly for the moment backing the progressives as his best hope for getting his big deal through, while at the same time telling them to walk their ask way back, to less than half of the difference between their $3.5 trillion ask and Manchin’s $1.5 trillion bid. Per Politico:
Biden sought to lower those expectations in the meeting Friday, where he discussed a price tag for the legislation between $1.9 trillion and $2.3 trillion, implying that it could win the backing from Senate moderates. Progressives, who had previously balked at the idea of a lower price tag, rallied around it afterward.
The Sunday talk shows confirmed that the progressives were capitulating:
"There's no number on the table yet that… everyone has agreed to," Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal tells @DanaBashCNN when asked about the ongoing negotiations on the larger spending package. Adding, $1.5 trillion is "too small to get our priorities in." #CNNSOTU pic.twitter.com/KV2EZ3Ig49
— State of the Union (@CNNSotu) October 3, 2021
Jayapal tries to maintain that she’s not negotiating against herself as she does precisely that. She’s abandoned the $3.5 trillion while trying to pretend that shifting the grounds of the negotiation from dollars to content is not to finesse a further retreat.
Sanders has also conceded:
Sen. Bernie Sanders tells @jonkarl that the $3.5 trillion budget resolution price tag will likely be lowered.
— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) October 3, 2021
AOC effectively admits that Manchin and Sinema hold the cards and follows the new line that the numbers could be finessed by shorter sunset periods for new programs:
WATCH: @RepAOC tells @margbrennan one way to met in the middle is to "fully fund what we can fully fund" and suggests scaling back the time table on how long some programs are funded for. pic.twitter.com/1mb8iFSJDt
— Face The Nation (@FaceTheNation) October 3, 2021
Wellie, this strategy won’t work so well for climate change programs, since private sector types will be more reluctant to commit resources to programs that might go poof in five years. And as in the assumption that any social spending program won’t be rolled back because it will become popular? It depends who the constituency is. A fair chunk of the new social social spending is directed at low income families, particularly an extension of annual tax credit for children. The Hill described it as “The largest anti-poverty program in a half century, a permanent expansion of this tax credit would increase after-tax income of the bottom quintile of families by 14.5 percent in 2022.” If you think if the Republicans ever get in charge that they won’t either let it die or mean-test it into a much smaller scheme, you are smoking something strong.
One could argue that Biden’s oblique mention of Manchin and Sinema signifies that the equation could change soon:
Biden: We could bring the moderates and progressives together very easily if we had two more votes. Two. Two people pic.twitter.com/mR7gwnkgoJ
— Acyn (@Acyn) October 2, 2021
However, it’s just as easy to see Biden giving the two Senators the “They who must not be named” treatment is an admission of their strength. Manchin signaled as much by widening the bid-asked spread by insisting the Hyde Amendment be part of the reconciliation bill. Manchin has also not budged from his $1.5 trillion-as-max position. For him, this appears not to be just a matter of what will fly in West Virginia; he seems to be a true believer. Oh, and remember he wants means-testing too, which translates into “not-really-free community college” and “only partial expansion of pre-K” despite research showing that those expenditures more than pay for themselves. Sinema for now is keeping mum, apparently content to let Manchin do the heavy lifting.
It isn’t obvious how Manchin or Sinema could be coerced. Since they are in red states, you think it would be possible for the Administration to slow walk absolutely everything they need and hope the locals notice. My friends who claim to be knowledgeable about DC say that isn’t how it is done. Both are bought and paid for by various interest groups, so they don’t need Team D much/at all for funding. What Sinema wants most, immigration controls, will not be delivered by the Democrats. Manchin has interests in coal companies and comes from a coal-lovin’ state, so he is personally and politically at odds with cutting carbon emissions. If Manchin hasn’t pissed off too many important Republicans personally, it isn’t hard to imagine that he’d cross the aisle if the Democrats tried to rough him up.
So now we are seeing the Congressional progressives tested, and they are found wanting. I suspect if you asked the representatives who were willing to defy Pelosi last week, they would say that climate change was an existential threat and they therefore thought they needed to Do Something. Yet faced with two Senators they apparently can’t budge, the progressives have revealed themselves to be what Lenin called “careerists”. If they were committed to their goals, they would have been willing to go full Tea Party and risk being one-term Congresscritters.1 They probably wouldn’t even be taking a financial risk, since they could almost certainly land in the NGO/industrial complex or the media.
So we’ll see how hard the progressives play-fight with Manchin and Sinema. If they deny Pelosi her promised end-of-month vote and push the negotiations into November, that would show willingness to buck convention and mark up their opponents a bit more. But until you hear of at least a dozen reps willing to vote against anything other that a pretty close to $3.5 trillion bill, don’t mistake this negotiation a fight. The progressives are just wrangling over the terms of a “Peace with Honor” treaty.
1 In fairness, while the progressive reps all or nearly all believe in taking concerted action to combat climate change, they may not believe enough in how Biden wants to go about it to commit political career seppuku.