Commentary: Taking the Infrastructure Bill Hostage Didn’t Work

Nancy Pelosi, AOC's mother and her all together
by Bill Scher


Back in August, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait blessed the strategy of the Congressional Progressive Caucus to withhold their votes for the Senate’s bipartisan physical infrastructure plan until that bill was effectively linked to a bigger, broader, and surely partisan, measure investing in a range of items from climate protection to universal preschool. He argued that “ransoming the infrastructure bill” would turn the tables on the party’s moderates:

Historically, most partisan bills are shaped by the preferences of the members of Congress closest to the middle, and their colleagues on the political extreme simply have to go along with it. … This time, the left has real power. Progressives can credibly threaten to sink a priority that moderates care about more than they do.

Twice in the past two months, most recently last Thursday, the House progressives successfully executed this strategy, blocking attempts by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pass the bipartisan infrastructure legislation before an agreement is reached on the larger “Build Back Better” bill.

But the desired result of the ransoming ploy, as outlined by Chait, has been unsuccessful. Ever since progressives took the bipartisan bill hostage, the contents of Build Back Better have steadily moved in the moderates’ direction.

The initial proposal, sketched out in the congressionally approved budget resolution, was sized at $3.5 trillion over 10 years.  However, largely to satisfy moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the Build Back Better framework outlined by the White House last week cut the proposal in half to $1.75 trillion. The lower ceiling, combined with Manchin’s dislike of an “entitlement mentality,” squeezed out several progressive priorities, including free paid leave, community college and expanded Medicare benefits covering dental and vision.

Just like in the past, this partisan bill is being “shaped by the preferences of the members of Congress closest to the middle.” Holding the infrastructure bill hostage hasn’t changed the internal dynamics a whit.

So why are progressives continuing to stick with the hostage-taking plan, even as they watch Build Back Better get smaller and smaller? Because they have told themselves, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y) said last month on “Face the Nation,” that “both [bills] will not pass if people try to separate them.” They believe the moderates, particularly Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), would kill Build Back Better outright if they pocketed the bipartisan infrastructure bill first. Rep. Ruben Gallego, a CPC member from Arizona who has begun to tease a 2024 primary challenge to Sinema, was blunt to Politico: “I think everyone is very clear that the biggest problem we have here is Manchin and Sinema. They [the progressives] don’t trust them.”

But what is the evidence that 1) either of them actually wants to kill Build Back Better and 2) if they do, that holding the bipartisan infrastructure bill hostage is keeping the two from killing it?

Various reports of Manchin’s and Sinema’s stingy negotiating postures have fed progressive mistrust, perhaps none more than the Oct. 21 dispatch, relayed by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) to Axiosthat in a negotiating session over the topline amount, Manchin told Sen. Bernie Sanders, “I’m comfortable with zero.”

But progressives should recognize that Manchin expressed that sentiment while the bipartisan infrastructure bill remains a hostage. Delaying its passage did not make moderates more willing to accept progressive demands. The adversarial dynamic has only prompted moderates to dig in their heels deeper and wield their leverage more aggressively.

Progressives have unwittingly weakened their own negotiating position because of their mistrust. The fact that progressives believe Manchin wants to kill the bill makes his “I’m comfortable with zero” threat far more credible. Progressives are now primed to accept a halving of the initial proposal, even though they have long insisted that the $3.5 trillion figure in the budget resolution was already a compromise from Sanders’ first proposal of $6 trillion. Compare that huge climb-down to how far Manchin has moved. In July he told Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that he would not “guarantee” support for a Build Back Better bill that went above $1.5 trillion, and he appears to be accepting a final amount very close to his initial demand.

Mistrust of the moderates was supposed to be clear-eyed realism that would strengthen progressive leverage. But the inverse has proven true; mistrust of the moderates lent additional credibility to any moderate threat to walk way, weakening progressive leverage.

The cold truth is that if Manchin or Sinema really, truly want to kill Build Back Better, then they are going to kill Build Back Better — no matter what happens to the bipartisan infrastructure bill. They can’t be forced to do something they don’t want to do. But more likely, they want to wield the power that comes with being the determining vote to exert the greatest influence over the bill.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus has taken pride in its newfound ability to function as a true bloc, able to resist the pleas from party leadership and play legislative hardball. They should take pride. They have just as much right to try to shape legislation as their moderate colleagues, and should organize to maximize their influence. But if and when the Build Back Better bill finally reaches the president’s desk, progressives shouldn’t spin themselves and claim their insistence on linking it to the bipartisan infrastructure bill paid off, when in fact they lost trillions in the process.

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Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, co-host of the show “The DMZ,” and host of the podcast “New Books in Politics.” He can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.
Photo “started from scratch” by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

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