With President Biden still seeking Republican support on infrastructure, progressives are increasingly amplifying warnings of a “Lucy and the football” scenario. Biden, they say, is wasting valuable time chasing a bipartisan deal that either won’t materialize or would have to be so scaled down to win Republicans that it isn’t worth doing.

This is imperiling the possibility of including major climate change provisions and other progressive priorities in whatever ends up passing, they say. Instead, Democrats should be doing as much as possible via a single grand package passed by a simple majority “reconciliation” vote.

Yet one very prominent progressive is not going out of his way to vocally criticize Biden over this: none other than Sen. Bernie Sanders. Instead, the Vermont independent and chair of the Senate Budget Committee is taking a much quieter, hands-off approach.

This points to a larger truth about the Biden years: Though there are obvious exceptions and this may not last, the left and the White House are working more constructively together than you might have expected.

Sanders’s quiet approach to Biden is spelled out in an interesting new Politico piece:

[Sanders] has not expressed concern about clean energy policies not making it into a final infrastructure bill. Nor is he among those loudly criticizing the White House for ongoing talks with GOP lawmakers. That’s because as a group of Republican and Democratic senators are trying to craft a bipartisan deal, Sanders is working in the background, helping jumpstart the next reconciliation package that seems likely to serve as the fallback option.

It’s true that Sanders has repeatedly said it’s time to move on to reconciliation already. But he isn’t being particularly loud or critical of Biden. As Politico reports, this is because he appears to be less worried that progressive priorities — such as the climate measures in Biden’s infrastructure proposals — will end up on the cutting room floor:

Sanders isn’t as concerned as other progressives are about their priorities being left out of the overall infrastructure package because the budget process is only just beginning, the aide added. And Sanders believes strong climate provisions — one of his biggest priorities — will be in a reconciliation bill.

This sort of constructive engagement might not have seemed likely back during the primaries, when progressive challengers were tearing into Biden as a neoliberal corporatist sellout.

Here’s what I think is going on, after talking to people in Sanders’s orbit. Sanders’s role has fundamentally changed. He’s now a committee chair with direct control over how large swaths of these bills will be written and processed. He can call up Biden directly. He doesn’t need to publicly push the president in antagonistic ways.

Indeed, one Sanders aide tells me his universe is cognizant of the media’s desire to hype Sanders-Biden conflict — something that would also play into the hands of Republicans and make it harder to hold together the Democratic coalition behind an eventual package. Sanders can influence the president and the process without engaging in criticism that might prove counterproductive.

Part of this is that Sanders surely knows Biden is pursuing this deal with Republicans in part to get Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to support a reconciliation bill later. In this pantomime, if Biden can reach a bipartisan deal on a roads-and-bridges infrastructure package, that second bill will be loaded up with many progressive policies, with Manchin’s blessing.

Sanders knows that what Manchin will or won’t support in the end will play a huge role in how big a package gets done. Though Sanders finds this frustrating, allowing Biden the space to do what’s necessary to get Manchin to a good place might ensure a better outcome.

Another part of this is that the left is being brought into these process discussions. Remember, way back in March, progressives worked out an arrangement with White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, in which Biden would try to seek a deal on one package with Republicans, on the understanding that exactly this two-track process would be pursued.

Ultimately, according to Sanders aides, what all this really reflects is his confidence that a reconciliation deal will ultimately get done. It won’t be everything he or progressives want, but he believes it will be historically ambitious.

What’s really noteworthy here is that the very fact that Sanders is approaching the situation this way might itself be a form of progress. Sanders has in a sense gotten a firm foothold in the Democratic establishment, and the positions at the center of the Democratic Party are now much closer to his positions. That means the party itself has moved in his direction.

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