It’s almost impossible to notice the movement of tectonic plates as they’re shifting. It’s only when the ground buckles and snaps in an earthquake that we’re aware that the land had already been moving. Moderate Democrats in Washington must similarly be wondering what happened as they struggle to accept that they are no longer the dominant force in the party.
After years of being relegated to an afterthought and being told that moving too quickly or too far to the left would alienate voters, progressives are firmly in the driver's seat in Washington. They make up the second largest ideological faction in Congress, behind only the archconservative Republican Study Committee. The White House is firmly on the progressives’ side in the ongoing debates over domestic policy, and the American public supports their plan to invest trillions of dollars over 10 years to improve both standards of living and the social safety net.
Democrats are hyper-aware how few members support they can afford to lose in the House (three votes) and Senate (zero) as they prepare for a string of key votes in the coming days. And so, with the next decade of Democratic priorities in the balance this week, let’s be perfectly clear about something: The centrists inside the Democratic Party are the ones threatening to cut the brakes and send this car careening into the yawning chasm that’s opened up between reality and their timid political instincts.
There’s no getting around the fact that the centrists trying to limit the size and scope of the budget reconciliation bill that’s being finalized are in the extreme minority. In the House, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has 94 voting members. Right behind them is the more traditional New Democrat Coalition, composed of 93 voting members, whose politics are similar to that of former President Bill Clinton.
And then there’s the Blue Dog Coalition. During the early Obama era, the Blue Dogs were ascendant, having been recruited to win over conservative districts during the 2008 election. During that cycle, they hit their peak of power, with their 59 members making up a sizable chunk of the Democrats’ majority at the time. They helped shaped that Congress’ legislative agenda, with moves that included paring back Obamacare’s scope and trimming the size of the 2009 stimulus bill.
The centrists inside the Democratic Party are the ones threatening to cut the brakes and send this car careening into the yawning chasm that’s opened up between reality and their timid political instincts.
Then over the next 10 years, they were steadily wiped out, beginning in 2010 when 33 of their members lost their seats. Now only a rump faction of 19 members remains in place, reduced to a sliver of their former influence. And even then, the current rebellion inside the House is minuscule. Only nine Blue Dogs signed an ultimatum to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August that nearly scuttled the budget reconciliation plan’s framework. And the five of them threatened to block reforms to prescription drug pricing and upend the entire bill’s plan to pay for the new spending were on an island onto themselves.
You’d think that the Blue Dogs might have allies in the New Democrat Coalition given its history of being more fiscally conservative. But nope — the Blue Dogs are on their own. “It’s important that we land the plane,” NDC caucus chair Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell after meeting with Biden at the White House last Wednesday. “The only acceptable answer is to pass a strong infrastructure bill, pass a strong Build Back Better Act, so we are delivering for workers, for families, for communities across the country.”
That means that these moderates are in an unfamiliar place right now. Used to being the kingmakers and final arbiters on bills, they’re now resorting to complaining to Politico Playbook that they aren’t being properly courted and that President Joe Biden hasn’t pressured the progressive wing to cave on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, or BIF:
Moderate Democrats expected Biden to start twisting House progressives’ arms during their White House meeting last week. But we’re told by sources in the progressive camp and another senior Democratic aide that the president has neither asked progressives to drop their demand that the reconciliation bill pass in tandem with BIF, nor pressed them to accept a stand-alone vote on BIF this week — at least not yet. This has infuriated moderates.
It is apparently beyond the Blue Dogs’ comprehension that Biden may not want to further trim down his ambitious domestic legislation plan. The $3.5 trillion framework is also already a compromise down from the $6 trillion investment that Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was originally advocating.
Across the Capitol, the Senate is dealing with an even smaller revolt. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, has finally figured out what she doesn’t like about the budget reconciliation bill, even if she’s still not willing to say it out loud. Sinema “has privately told colleagues she will not accept any corporate or income tax rate increase,” The New York Times reported, which is a hell of a limb to go out on when the president won his election by campaigning on everyone paying their fair share.
At the same time, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who is crafting much of the Senate bill’s climate provisions as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources committee, remains unconvinced that the package even needs to pass this year. Manchin’s position pretends that a) Congress will want to deal with this during an election year and b) that the need for the investments under consideration will somehow decrease over time.
You know who doesn’t feel that way? Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who — just like Manchin, is a Democrat in a state where Trump won in both 2016 and 2020 — is all-in on the leadership’s plan. When asked if he backed Manchin’s desire to hit pause on reconciliation, Tester responded: “Are you crazy? Are you trying to get me shot? I’d never, ever want to be aligned with Joe Manchin. My wife would divorce me.”
Out of a caucus of 250 members across the two houses of Congress, there are at most 25 Democrats — or 10 percent — who are actively trying to slow roll or winnow down Biden's agenda.
Again, out of a caucus of 250 members across the two houses of Congress, there are at most 25 Democrats — or 10 percent — who are actively trying to slow roll or winnow down Biden's agenda. They’re the ones insisting that progressives just go ahead and pass the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill waiting in the House immediately and would be completely fine if the $3.5 trillion bill never sees Biden’s desk. And yet they seem to believe that they should win out over the leadership in the House and Senate and Biden and the vast majority of their caucus.
Pelosi has until Thursday, when a vote on the bipartisan plan is scheduled, to get her members into line. Or, as The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote Monday, she may delay that vote again to wait for the broader package to be wrapped up in the Senate. The howls from the moderates would be loud, but they’re in the same boat as the rest of their party. They need both bills to pass, and that can’t happen without recognizing the futility of acting as a spoiler.
As the only major party advocating for democratic rule, Democrats can’t let themselves be strong-armed by a decidedly undemocratic minority.