On Tuesday, congressional Democrats narrowly avoided the spectacle of weeks of carefully laid plans crumbling into dust. For once, it wasn’t the fickleness of senators that threatened those plans but the whims of nine moderate members of the House.
At the heart of the moderates’ complaint was Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to allow a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate passed this month. Pelosi, D-Calif., insisted the infrastructure bill wait until a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation passed through both chambers of Congress and landed on President Joe Biden’s desk.
Their issue isn’t substantive; it’s political.
It was clearly a bid from Pelosi to keep any lawmakers from diluting Biden’s economic agenda, almost all of which needs to fit into the pending reconciliation bill to have a chance of passing the Senate.
In response, the nine moderates at the center of the intraparty struggle — Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J.; Carolyn Bourdeaux, D-Ga.; Jared Golden, D-Maine; Ed Case, D-Hawaii; Jim Costa, D-Calif.; Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.; Filemon Vela, D-Texas; Henry Cuellar, D-Texas; and Vicente González, D-Texas — argued in a Washington Post op-ed Sunday that linking the infrastructure and reconciliation bills was standing in the way of a win for Democrats:
The challenge we face right now is that there is a standoff with some of our colleagues who have decided to hold the infrastructure bill hostage for months, or kill it altogether, if they don’t get what they want in the next bill — a largely undefined $3.5 trillion reconciliation package. While we have concerns about the level of spending and potential revenue raisers, we are open to immediate consideration of that package.
But we are firmly opposed to holding the president’s infrastructure legislation hostage to reconciliation, risking its passage and the bipartisan support behind it.
Translation: Please let us vote on the bipartisan bill first and free us from having to support whatever’s in the reconciliation bill that makes it cost so much. If that last bit sounds vague, that’s purposeful on their part. Their issue isn’t substantive; it’s political.
These moderates want to have it both ways. They want to champion the causes and ideas of the Democratic Party — from “climate to health care to universal pre-K,” as they wrote in their op-ed — but they don’t want to have to defend the price tag that comes with them. As a result, they worry and fret over the top-line budget numbers as a way to assert their separation from the left wing of the party.
It’s a song and dance that used to work great for moderate politicians, despite being terrible for most Americans. In the 1990s, Republicans, who’d been in the minority for decades, won the House by hammering away at “tax and spend Democrats.” Suddenly, fiscal conservatism was all the rage on the center-left. This newfound rabid devotion to lowering government spending was how we got the deeply racist push for “welfare reform,” a fetish for endless means-testing before impoverished Americans could access benefits and a massive reduction in federal aid to families.
These days most Democrats have realized that helping people costs money.
These days most Democrats have realized that helping people costs money — and that policies that help people have been wildly popular for a long while now. The incorporation of those policies into the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan is a big reason why Biden’s proposals cost so much dang money.
The moderates know that coming out against any specific agenda item is likely a bad look, which is why we get the generic “concerns” expressed in Sunday’s op-ed. Being vague allows them to get all of the “fiscal conservative” taste, with none of the “actually saying people don’t deserve government help” guilt.
In the end, though, the moderates won some serious concessions with their delaying tactics. In exchange for their votes, the language of the bill passed Tuesday says the House “shall” — the least wiggly of legislative words — vote on the Senate’s infrastructure bill by Sept. 27. Also, the speaker’s statement said the House would pass a reconciliation bill that’s sure to get the support of all 50 senators.
As a result, Pelosi comes out of the ordeal with less leverage over not just her own moderates but those across the Capitol, too. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have both expressed their own concerns about how much spending Congress is preparing to undertake. Guaranteeing that whatever cuts they demand for their votes in the Senate will be reflected in the House’s bill means some parts of Biden’s agenda will be pared down.
What progressives in the House understand, but the moderates refuse to acknowledge, is that the dollars that will now inevitably be cut will mean less investment in climate change or free community college or fewer taxes on wealthy people to pay for it all. And, ironically, in reducing that spending, the moderates are making it harder for Democrats to keep hold of the House next year.
I wish I could tell you there was an actual policy disagreement at work here. But I don’t think there is. I think if you were to ask any of these moderates to name the program they want to see reduced or eliminated — not the number on a page but the thing that the money will actually buy — they’d falter. Instead, like politicians of a bygone age, they’re betting their constituents’ sticker shock will save them from having to name to their policy objections.