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Despite the Capitol Hill drama, the Democratic agenda persists

You may have seen some headlines describing developments on Capitol Hill as a "big setback" for Democrats. I think those headlines have it backwards.


This past weekend, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to her members, letting them know that this week would be "a time of intensity." Not surprisingly, she was right.

Those who've been keeping an eye on Capitol Hill this week have probably noticed that negotiations over President Joe Biden's domestic agenda have intensified. At issue are two bills: a bipartisan infrastructure measure, approved by the Senate last month, and a more ambitious Build Back Better package, focused on safety-net-and-climate policies, pending in the House.

Democratic leaders hoped to reach an agreement on the latter so that the House could pass the former. As NBC News reported overnight, that didn't happen.

House Democrats delayed a planned vote Thursday on a major infrastructure package, heading home for the night after intraparty fighting hamstrung their ability to pass the legislation. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., announced after a series of late-night negotiations that the vote had been postponed indefinitely as Democrats battle over the way forward on President Joe Biden's agenda.

Some of the media coverage this morning characterized the delay as a major blow to the party's agenda. The New York Times' online front page, for example, described last night's developments on Capitol Hill as a "big setback" for the White House.

That's certainly one way to look at the story, but given all of the relevant details, the assessment may have it backwards.

Remember, the original plan was for the House to vote on the bipartisan Senate bill — known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (or BIF) — on Monday. When rank-and-file House progressives balked, saying they wanted to see progress on the Build Back Better bill first, Monday's vote was scrapped and moved to Thursday.

Last night, Pelosi again proposed a vote on the more modest Senate bill. Progressives balked again, and so the vote was scrapped again.

But that's not a "big setback" for the president's agenda; it's a development that keeps the president's agenda alive.

After all, the ambitious Build Back Better legislation is, for all intents and purposes, Biden's domestic agenda. It comprises a great many White House priorities — from health care to education, climate to housing — that comprised the president's 2020 platform.

If House Democrats were to simply pass the bipartisan Senate bill, before the more ambitious Democratic bill is complete, it would shift the leverage to a small group of centrist and conservative Democrats who would no longer have any incentive to pass the Build Back Better package, in turn gutting Biden's blueprint.

This need not be complicated: The whole point of the two-track strategy is to pass both parts of the plan. Centrist and conservative Democrats have effectively said, "Pass our bill and we'll consider giving you some fraction of your bill." Progressive Democrats have effectively countered, "We don't love your bill, but we'll vote for it anyway if you help us pass our bill."

The latter group — representing roughly 96% of congressional Democrats — have long had the upper hand. After last night's drama, that remains the case, which means Biden's agenda now lives to see another day.

To be sure, it's entirely possible that this entire process will collapse and the American public will end up with none of the benefits of either bill. Given that Democratic leaders in both chambers have no margin of error, that scenario is incredibly easy to envision.

But last night didn't bring the party closer to such a disaster. If anything, yesterday brought Democrats incrementally closer to success.

Why? Because the kinetic legislative activity represents progress. The relevant players have a better sense of what the competing intra-party contingents actually want. As Punchbowl News accurately summarized this morning, "Thursday's events forced all parties to the table. And there's something to that. Everyone's cards are face up now, and that's a step toward ultimately advancing Biden's agenda."

As for what happens now, a giant question mark hangs over the negotiations, but the level of engagement has reached a new level. White House officials and Democratic leaders on the Hill are working towards a possible compromise on the Build Back Better plan, which would clear the way for the House to pass the Senate infrastructure bill.

As members departed for the night, Pelosi expressed some optimism that there could be a breakthrough today, with a BIF floor vote soon after. Even if that proves too rosy, the more the key players keep the process moving, the closer they'll inch toward the finish line.

Again, a breakthrough is hardly inevitable, and the talks may yet fail. Proponents of the White House's plans would be foolish to get their hopes up. But none of the latest developments represents a "big setback." It was a predictable delay as part of complex legislative negotiations, which are closer to success than they were before.