At the beginning of the last week, House Democrats had concrete plans only to pass the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure framework (BIF), a narrowly crafted bill living up to its nickname — it mainly funds bridges, roads and airports, as well as greater broadband Internet access in rural areas.
Most political observers believed Democratic leaders had decided to take the bird in the hand and rack up an accomplishment rather than force a vote on a much more sweeping and controversial $3.5 trillion spending measure, known as the human infrastructure bill, or simply Build Back Better after Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign slogan. The BBB was still facing a two-senator blockade in the Senate and was always the more aspirational legislation – the biggest expansion of social spending since the Great Society, providing funds for everything from universal pre-K to community college, as well as new outlays for Medicare and the Democrats’ climate-change agenda.
By Friday, all bets were off. Speaker Nancy Pelosi twice broke her big promise to moderates to hold a vote on the $1.2 trillion bill, and even President Biden was singing from the progressives’ song sheet, instructing all House Democrats to hold off on that bipartisan measure until there’s a deal on BBB.
There’s no doubt that the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal and backed up by Sen. Bernie Sanders, is responsible for upending the legislative plan, refusing to accept House and Senate Democratic leaders’ legislative priorities while demonstrating the new power they wield.
But a quieter group of critics is pointing out another dynamic that may have been crucial to the progressives’ ability to revive the once moribund BBB bill: House Republicans’ near lock-step opposition to the Senate-negotiated BIF.
Without the House GOP turning their backs on BIF, the progressives may not have had enough leverage to stop the vote from taking place. All but the most conservative House Republicans were facing significant pressure from business groups, including the U.S Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, to support the bipartisan infrastructure package. There are 56 members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, half Democrats and half Republicans, who vowed to work together to break through Washington’s gridlock. A good portion of the centrist group’s Republican members planned to follow GOP leadership orders and vote against BIF last week, House GOP sources told RealClearPolitics.
There are nearly 100 members of the progressive caucus, but it’s unclear exactly how many would follow Jayapal’s directive to sink a popular spending bill that all Democrats back on the merits. Before the progressive revolt, the BIF was poised to pass alone, untethered to the BBB measure and with support from a large group of House Republican moderates. Pelosi, having secured a major accomplishment to tout in next year’s midterms, would likely have later deemed the sweeping BBB bill as too heavy of a lift and eventually let it die on the vine with little in the way of a public eulogy.
Biden too seemed satisfied with that outcome early last week before the progressive revolt. Leading up to the planned Monday BIF vote, the president had done little public or private lobbying on behalf of the bigger BBB measure, which Democrats planned to pass through reconciliation — except that centrist Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema were holding it up while ridiculing its $3.5 trillion price tag.
A few weeks ago, however, the right wing of the Republican Party convinced House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to whip against the BIF vote as well — a decision viewed at the time as helping him shore up support from the conservative Freedom Caucus and Republican Study Committee to become House speaker if the GOP regains the majority next fall. The influential American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC, the largest annual gathering of conservatives, designated the BIF as a key no vote in their annual members’ scorecards, signaling just how important it was for Republicans to hold the line.
There were still between a dozen to 15 centrist GOP House members planning to vote for the bipartisan bill, which they helped negotiate, had it come to the floor last week. But that contingent wasn’t enough to offset the mass exodus of progressives that ultimately held the measure hostage until there’s a deal on BBB.
“At the end of the day, Democrats know they need to get something done — they cannot go back to their districts empty-handed having had full control of the House, Senate and the presidency,” said Nick Rathod, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Obama White House and former executive director of the State Innovation Exchange, an organization devoted to creating progressive power in state legislatures.
If they were smart, Rathod told RealClearPolitics, Republicans would have just stood back and watched the infighting among Democrats potentially tank both the BIF and reconciliation bills. The latter was poised for near certain legislative stalling and inaction.
“Instead, they likely overplayed their hand on a bipartisan compromise on infrastructure that is popular regardless of party and positioned the Democrats to not only reach a compromise position on both bills but allow for them to push through on their own and take full credit for delivering for their constituents, without any Republican support,” he said.
Before last week, Manchin was calling for strategic pause – perhaps into next year – for the BBB measure, enough time, many analysts believed, for it to lose all momentum. With progressives able to up the ante, by the end of the week Manchin had disclosed that he would accept a $1.5 trillion price tag, and Democrats were expressing confidence that a BBB bill between that number and $2 trillion would pass in the days or weeks ahead.
With progressives crowing about their success in forcing a BBB deal over the weekend, and Democratic and GOP moderates licking their wounds, Republicans focused on the short term, celebrating several straight days of “Democrats in disarray” headlines last week.
Economist Stephen Moore, co-founder of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity and the leader of the Coalition to Save America, which oppose the BBB measure, called the last week “a total train wreck for the Democrats.”
“They can’t move anything. They can’t move their infrastructure bill. They can’t increase the debt ceiling, they can’t move the $5 trillion spending bill and they had to pass a temporary continuing resolution,” he told RCP, referring to the BBB measure, which critics say will cost far more than the $3.5 trillion Democrats claim. “They’re firing at each other and Sinema and Manchin are personas non grata with their own party.”
Rep. Jim Banks, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, on Friday issued a statement denouncing Democrats’ messy infighting as proof that they can’t govern.
“It’s official. Democrats failed,” he declared. “This week was their shot to pass the infrastructure deal and a massive spending bill via reconciliation, and they couldn’t get it done because their party has been taken over by radicals.”
But Banks and other conservatives were mum about both bills’ prospects in the weeks ahead. He didn’t respond to an RCP question about whether Republicans had scored a pyrrhic victory in last week’s infrastructure battle but would ultimately lose the spending war.
Moore was more cautious about the bills’ fates, acknowledging that defeating any form of the BBB bill – even one with a lower price tag – remains an “uphill climb.”
“It’s all in play right now and everything is very fluid,” he said. “I’m hardly declaring victory here.”
Every Republican in the Senate is against passing a BBB bill of any shape or size, Moore said, insisting its opponents are in a “much, much better spot today than we were several weeks ago.”
With both measures back on the table, however, and Biden now committed to passing them even if it takes weeks to do so, the next legislative phase many produce some honest GOP introspection – at least privately.
If Democrats can’t reach an agreement and both bills fail, the House GOP strategy was a stroke of genius. But if Democrats end up passing the BIF and a more narrowly tailored BBB, it will amount to trillions in new spending that will be difficult to reverse in the years ahead. Under that very plausible scenario, House Republicans will be at least partly responsible for both empowering progressives and helping to transform their aspirational agenda into reality — together a big win for the Biden presidency.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Nick Rathod is executive director of the State Innovation Exchange. He is a former executive director.