So How Far Will House Progressives Retreat to Get a Version of Biden’s “Build Back Better” Program

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:

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:

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:

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:

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.

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  1. vlade

    TBH, I’d say that the “progressives” lost when they allowed the press to call Manchin “moderate” w/o any fight.

    1. Eureka Springs

      Progressives are winning because this is exactly what they do both consistently and successfully for what, the last 80 plus years.

      Nothing in my life would improve one iota if these bills passed at 6, 3.5 or 1.5 trillion.

      And tax credits are a form of means testing, imo.

  2. Donald

    If Manchin and Sinema won’t budge no matter what pressure is applied, the progressives lose whether they play fight or real fight. It is just a question of what form of losing does the least harm and that isn’t clear to me.

    1. vlade

      Indeed. That is why I believe that they should call way more attention to Manchin’s behaviour (probably less important to Sinema, as I understand she’s not going to run again?).

      1. philnc

        While AOC’s idea that they just fully fund for a shorter period at first makes sense, especially given Manchin’s recent “how much do they want in one year” (falsely intimating that the number being debated is not being strung out over a decade), it is clearly flawed. Not that the next Republican majority couldn’t dismantle the whole patchwork edifice (edifices?) in their first term, but you do need at least a _plan_ for the long haul. Still, how much does that really matter given the laughably inadequate funding ($6 T) in the original plan. Go check the numbers from the Bernie 2020 campaign, or better yet take a look at the more detailed (and realistic) Green platform, and it becomes clear that the Progressives in Congress have been negotiating against themselves from the beginning. The billionaire Senator from W. VA. and millionaire Senator from AZ may well go down in history as being the agents of American civilization’s fall, like Pericles and Alcibiades, were for that of Athens. But they aren’t alone in their marching us to destruction (Trudeau’s smiling face comes to mind), and it will be little comfort to future generations that those two may themselves be overtaken by the disaster they’re now setting in motion (rapid, widespread, system collapse will not treat even the wealthiest in Appalachia and the Southwest kindly, let alone their powerless and isolated progeny).

        1. lance ringquist

          the vote blue no matter who crowd owes americans a apology. there is no going foward under nafta democrats. democrats became the party of oligarchy under nafta billy clinton.

          and they have had 30 years to infiltrate all aspects of american governance at all levels of our society.

          i have personally seen it at the state level, and the local level.

          vote green for a civil society.

      2. albrt

        I hope Sinema will not run again, but I haven’t heard that from anyone here in Arizona.

        Then again, I don’t think Sinema talks to anybody here in Arizona anymore. Her sights are set on bigger and better things, much like Janet Napolitano.

        1. NotTimothyGeithner

          There is a short story where a future US has a President selected by Senators where no Senator can vote for themselves. No matter how many times they vote, every Senator writes in their own name.

          The only reason she would not run is she had zero expectations of winning. She has a time to become a paid intern at a winery. Being Senator gets her on TV. She won’t give up on that.

          She’s running a deranged John McCain fantasy.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      If the DemProgs could injure and insult Coaly Joe badly enough that he crossed the aisle to the Republican side, that would show they have the ability to degrade or destroy the “Big Tent” Democratic Party . . . one Clintonite at a time.

  3. Donald


    Part of the problem is that they let the press get away with this propaganda terminology of moderate vs. conservative. Self described moderates, including ordinary people, think that words like “compromise”, “ pragmatism” and so forth are virtues in themselves and they pride themselves on their “ realism” and “ maturity”. The substance of the issues is lost in a cloud of self- praising generalities about process. Being a moderate is like a form of particularly vapid identity politics for people who are affluent and don’t think they have anything at stake. So they talk about how progressives must learn they can’t get everything they want. So much for affordable drug prices or health care.

    I see moderates talking like this all the time in NYT comment sections and this whole line of thought has to be exposed as the idiocy it is. There is nothing pragmatic about a gradual approach to climate change, for example. And people who aren’t sacrificing anything shouldn’t talk about the need for others to sacrifice.

    1. larrymotuz

      YES. There is nothing ‘moderate’ about a gradualist approach to addressing climate change.

  4. Chas

    A couple of thoughts. The late senator Jim Jeffords (Bernie’s predecessor) once lamented that he’d always been proud to be a liberal republican and didn’t like it that the media had changed his classification to moderate republican. Also, since Manchin and Sinema are so motivated by greed, why not have a fund raising drive to raise enough money to give them to change their position and support the reconciliation bill. First step would be to find out how much money they would want.

    1. ambrit

      Since we are a Third World country now, why not go all in. Raise a fraction of the “Buy Out” funds you suggest and hire some “Black Hat” operatives and….
      That is the direction we are heading in anyway.

    2. megrim

      It seems to me like most politicians are pretty cheap, but also I doubt a one-time ̶b̶r̶i̶b̶e̶ donation would do much. I reckon that an implied promise of a drip-feed of cash would be required.

    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      The people Sinemanchin work for could always outbid us and outraise us. If we raised thousands to bribe them our way, their owners would raise millions to keep them bribed their way.

  5. TomDority

    Always plenty of cash for killing, plunder, pillage and destruction and anything dressed up as something to be feared by the politicians — but do anything that advances civilization, or creates, of saves, or helps our planet, or uses advances in technology for good instead of crime and entertainment……..well then the cowardly congress members will tell you we are paupers, we can’t afford it, we won’t change society to an entitlement society, TINA, be afraid, etc.
    When I hear the old saw about how we can’t do something the people want, because cash, coming from a congressman — well it helps me to know who the cowards are — and yes — some are dressed with the most flag material around em.
    ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ at least what I think it means is — that patriotism is used by a scoundrel to hide his ill aims or cowardice from criticism and discovery — to use what is good for a shield to ones own avarice, greed or power grab or ill gains or wrong decisions etc

  6. Michael Ismoe

    Take the $1.5 trillion and run. Elon Musk can wait until he’s 60 to get his next trillion dollars from the government trough

  7. Brooklin Bridge

    The opening paragraph, or Empty Box suspicion, is quite interesting and quite plausible though it would make the so called progressives look remarkably cynical carrying on with their plausibility dances just long enough if they knowingly go through all this theater for a bunch of hollow, sound-good programs.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      So far, all the concern seems to focus on the cost and duration of the Biden bills. I have no idea what either bill contains, who benefits, or how. I doubt Populace will be among the beneficiaries of the final bills that are passed. I lost any illusions that the so-called progressives might take a principled stand after they stood by while the CARES Act giveaways to the wealthy flew through Congress. That was some time ago but I have not noticed much in the way of name changes in the playbill of progressives. We endure dull new dramas bounded to avoid content and the same actors playing the same roles.

  8. SomeGuyinAZ

    If they have to renegotiate every bit of this I wish the starting point would be: “Okay, so we’re starting back at the original $6 Trillion point not the already scaled back $3.5T”. Instead we’ll get about $1T with most of that being more useless pork and corporate giveaways.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      Agree. Neither bill should go through if 1) the contents are just hot air or 2) the funding is cut any more. Let Manchin and Sinema explain the bill’s failure to their constituents. Even in West Verginia, voters want a lot of what’s in those bills.

  9. ptb

    More on Manchin’s entrenched position

    Besides being one of two swing votes in the Senate, he’s chair of the Senate energy committee, and nominally the swing vote there. It’s the key seat for energy industry legislation (like the infrastructure bill). The committee, with Manchin’s swing vote, also decides whether the Secretary of Energy nominees go to the Senate floor for confirmation. The one page sheet of demands he gave Schumer, as its first bullet point on climate, had giving this committee “sole jurisdiction over clean energy standards”. (As opposed to the Environment and Public Works committee?).

    Hard to see how he doesn’t get most of his climate / energy-industry related demands.

  10. dday

    Arizona is not a red state any more. It has two Democratic US Senators, a Democratic Secretary of State, and a Democratic Superintendent of Public Education. The state legislature is almost party equal, the Republicans have a one vote advantage in both chambers. The US congressional delegation is 5 Democrats, 4 Republicans. Congressional representative Raul Grijalva is a former co-chair of the Progressive Caucus.

    Secretary of State Katie Hobbs is running for Governor in 2022. The Trump endorsed candidate Kari Lake has said that she would not have certified the 2020 presidential election in Arizona.

    1. tegnost

      …or the dems have moved right hoping to poach republican voters, and they’ve succeeded…so rather than arizona is less red, the dems have become more red.

        1. lyman alpha blob

          I’m going with tegnost’s take, which is the way of the Democrat party nationwide. They have been openly courting Republican voters by promising to cater to them for a few election cycles now.

          Chomsky developed a serious case of the Trump Derangement Syndrome which is likely the only reason any Democrat party officials give him the time of day.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      This is grasping at straws. The Governor and the as you conceded, both houses of the legislature are Republican, even if not by much. That is what matter for how the state operates. Biden only won by 10,000 votes. If Sinema were hit by a truck, or more likely in the modern world, forced to resign in a sex scandal. the Governor would appoint a Republican as her replacement.

  11. Jason Boxman

    As Lambert frequently says, this is the house that liberal Democrats built. So it’s working as planned. The only card ‘progressives/the left’ has here is to simply kill the bill and try to pick up seats in the mid-terms. Of course that isn’t going to happen, because climate change! (or insert your favorite ‘because’ here). So ultimately they’ll take whatever smaller bill is offered and declare victory. But we’re definitely a day late and a dollar short here as usual.

  12. NotTimothyGeithner

    Besides being an idiot and right wing, Biden is also a wimp. He didn’t punish Manchin or Sinema for stunts when he sent the Delaware senators to cover their no vote on minimum wage, regardless of Biden’s views. Sinema had her photo thumbs down, and Manchin was reading the Constitution during Biden’s SOTU or joint session appearance. They were thumbing their noses. He should have been pulling bases or other projects then. Get them in line. Or put failures on those two. As they and way she thoroughly repulsive individuals, they wouldn’t have hurt Biden.

    All Biden has done is his c’mon man routine. The Republicans know he isn’t going to show strength, so they don’t fear an angry electorate. Republicans are denouncing Sinema being followed into bathrooms. They are terrified of people learning how awful their elected is. It wouldn’t take much, but Biden is again a wimp.

  13. lyman alpha blob

    If they can’t get $3.5 trillion from Manchin and Sinema, maybe old uncle Joe can reach across the aisle and convince some of his Republican friends to vote for his signature legislation if they’re really all such good pals as he claims.

    I made myself laugh just typing that – everyone knows this is rigged in favor of the corporate status quo.

    If I were Jayapal right now, I’d point out how many trillions were already given out to banks and other corporations a year ago whether they needed it or not, how much they’ve already compromised, and then say the new negotiations now start at $3.5 million plus the $600 Biden still owes everybody in the US.

    If the rest of Congress won’t go for it, then burn it to the ground and Biden gets nothing. No “legacy” other than botching the pandemic response as badly as Trump did.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      “Never get in your enemy’s way when he is making a mistake.” Having Biden’s signature legislation go splat would be a plus for the Republicans.

      Admittedly about 10-15 have defected in the House but that is not enough (now) to offset the progressives.

  14. CarlH

    I am loathing the kabuki theater more and more. I have zero faith in any of our elected officials. Zero.

  15. rjs

    better to let it all go down than to pass the Manchin infrastructure bill and then turn over the writing of the reconciliation bill’s climate provisions to him, which is where it’s heading…

    1. rjs

      i have made the point before that the infrastructure bill will have the largest carbon footprint of any domestic policy initiative since Eisenhower built the interstates…just start with the concrete and asphalt we’d use for road building & repair..
      concrete is made of various combinations of sand, gravel and cement…all the various types of cement have lime (CaO) as their basic material…that lime is produced by heating limestone (CaCO3) to produce lime and carbon dioxide (CaCO3 > CaO + CO2); hence, cement production itself emits 0.654 tons of CO2 per ton of cement produced, not including the CO2 emitted in generating the 1300 C degree temperatures needed to trigger the reaction…

      meanwhile, the basic material for making asphalt is bitumen, popularly known as tar…bitumen is the thick goo that’s left over from oil refining…trouble is, oil from shale is so light (sometimes it’s almost like gasoline) there’s little bitumen left over from refining it, so most bitumen now has to be mined from somewhere…we’ve got a few deposits, like in Utah, Kentucky, & California, but for any quantity we’d have to import it from the tar sands of Canada or Venezuela..

      then there’s bridges, which will need steel…like cement production, steel making has CO2 emissions from both the process (using coking coal) and the electricity needed to make it….CO2 emissions from steel manufacturing are almost double the amount of steel that is produced: 1.85 tons of CO2 per ton of steel.

      i could go on, but you get my drift…i’ve been on the CO2 case since 1976, so if i thought there was still hope, the infrastructure bill would be something that would gravely concern me..

  16. bernard j karpf

    Why don[‘t the dem’s just ‘kick’ Sinema and Manchin out of the party? I don’t understand. Could matters really be worse.
    The optics are that the dem’s are either 1)gutless 2) playing good cop/bad cop with the GOP to perpetuate the corporate gov’t model we presently have and doing it not very subtlely. 3) They don’t have genuine interest in progressive policies.

    Why can’t the dem’s just give the SineManchin the boot, then cement themselves to the 3.5tr plan, and when it fails, let the voters see that any reform was resisted by the conservatives.

    I also don’t see why the Dem’s can not play hardball and commence publiciziing the scandalous role that Manchins coal investments and machine has played in his favoring fossil interests and his discontent with the legislation at hand. Oh yes, that would mean the democrats would have to genuinely be interested in passing legislation and not be floormats.

  17. Sound of the Suburbs

    How does free trade really work?
    We got some stuff from Ricardo, like the law of comparative advantage.
    What’s gone missing?

    There were three groups in the capitalist system in Ricardo’s world (and there still are).
    Workers / Employees
    Capitalists / Employers
    Rentiers / Landowners / Landlords / other skimmers, who are just skimming out of the system, not contributing to its success

    The unproductive group exists at the top of society, not the bottom.
    Later on we did bolt on a benefit system to help others that were struggling lower down the scale.

    Identifying the unproductive group at the top of society didn’t go down too well.
    They needed a new economics to hide the discoveries of the classical economists, neoclassical economics.

    The UK knew how free trade worked in the 19th century, before neoclassical economics.
    How did the UK prepare to compete in a free trade world in the 19th century?
    They had an Empire to get in cheap raw materials; there were no regulations and no taxes on employees.
    It was all about the cost of living, and they needed to get that down so they could pay internationally competitive wages.
    UK labour would cost the same as labour anywhere else in the world.

    Disposable income = wages – (taxes + the cost of living)
    Employees get their money from wages and the employers pay the cost of living through wages, reducing profit.

    Ricardo supported the Repeal of the Corn Laws to get the price of bread down.
    They housed workers in slums to get housing costs down.
    Employers could then pay internationally competitive wages and were ready to compete in a free trade world.

    That’s the idea.
    You level the playing field first; then you engage in free trade.

    The interests of the capitalists and rentiers are opposed with free trade.
    This nearly split the Tory Party in the 19th century over the Repeal of the Corn Laws.
    The rentiers gains push up the cost of living.
    The landowners wanted to get a high price for their crops, so they could make more money.
    The capitalists want a low cost of living as they have to pay that in wages.
    The capitalists wanted cheap bread, as that was the staple food of the working class, and they would be paying for it through wages.

    Of course, that’s why it’s so expensive to get anything done in the West.
    It’s our high cost of living.
    Disposable income = wages – (taxes + the cost of living)
    Employees get their money from wages and the employers pay the cost of living through wages, reducing profit.

    Everyone pays their own way.
    Employees get their money from wages.
    The employer pays the way for all their employees in wages.
    Off-shore from the West ASAP to maximise profit.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      The neoliberals have never got to grips with the mechanics of free trade.

      Maximising profit is all about reducing costs.
      China had coal fired power stations to provide cheap energy.
      China had lax regulations reducing environmental and health and safety costs.
      China had low taxes and a minimal welfare state.
      China had a low cost of living so employers could pay low wages.

      China had all the advantages in an open globalised world.
      Western companies couldn’t wait to off-shore to low cost China, where they could make higher profits.

      Western businesses tried cutting costs here, but could never get down to Chinese levels and they needed to off-shore to maximise profit.
      They gave away decades of Western design and development knowledge in technology transfer agreements.

      They neoliberals were never going to see that coming.

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