This also should prompt a reconsideration of the mythology that centrists, unlike progressives, are distinguished by their steely, clear-eyed determination to make Washington “work,” and their refusal to let hard governing realities get obscured by gauzy ideological nebula clouds.
The latest standoff concerns the process by which House Democrats will pass the $1 trillion bipartisan “hard” infrastructure bill that passed the Senate, and the $3.5 trillion “human” infrastructure reconciliation bill.
A group of five to 10 House moderates have signaled to leadership that they would be willing to let the infrastructure bill fail rather than be held hostage by liberals over the broader spending bill. It’s a more attractive alternative to them than having to vote for painful tax increases to pay for an unrestrained social safety net expansion, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
This is likely posturing. Centrists want to reduce the spending and taxes in the reconciliation package, and want Democrats to pass the infrastructure bill on Sept. 27 — as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has agreed to try to do. But progressives are vowing to vote down that bill, until the Senate completes a reconciliation one. So such centrist threats seem designed to increase leverage.
The centrists’ story here is that they piously want to get something done. But they are being held “hostage” by progressives in thrall to in-the-clouds ideological fantasies so radical that voting for this would be worse politically for them than imploding Biden’s entire agenda.
A review is in order.
This situation largely flows from the fact that centrists such as Manchin and Sinema insisted on pursuing a bipartisan infrastructure bill in the Senate. Progressives opposed this, believing (correctly) that it would squander valuable time, and because Democrats always could pass everything by reconciliation alone.
But progressives essentially accepted this outcome. Remember: Back in March, progressives reached a general understanding with the White House. They would swallow the need for moderates to try for Republican support on infrastructure, on the understanding that progressive priorities would pass by reconciliation later.
So progressives made accommodations at the outset. The “two track” strategy arose to ensure that the two sides would exert leverage on one another, holding the party together. But a small band of centrists threatened to oppose a procedural vote to start the reconciliation process, forcing Democratic leaders to rupture the two tracks with a planned Sept. 27 infrastructure vote.
There was never any serious rationale for that, but regardless, it is in response to that move that progressives are threatening to vote no. In so doing, progressives are just trying to maintain the original two-track strategy, which is rooted in a hardheaded appraisal of both factions’ needs.
By no means have progressives been blameless. They’re often too quick to accuse moderates of being squishy sellouts. And it’s still unclear whether progressives will accept reductions in the reconciliation bill needed to keep centrists on board. But on balance, progressives have been the true realists here.
As Jamelle Bouie writes, centrists enjoy the image of being “grown-ups," because they tend to come from swing districts and supposedly have a “sense of the possible.” But as Bouie notes, progressives have already reduced their reconciliation demands. And they have a more realistic assessment of the politics. What’s at stake is the success of the Biden agenda: The party will rise and fall with that together.
The progressive position is realistic on substance, too. As David Dayen notes, the centrist tendency to start with the generalized aim of lower spending levels for their own sake creates “artificial” constraints on our investments in our country and people, regardless of the value of their returns.
What’s more, it will be disastrous if the United States goes into this fall’s global climate conference without passing a very robust climate agenda via reconciliation, potentially hamstringing U.S. global leadership and our long-term ability to do what scientists say is needed to curb global warming. Aren’t those who want to avoid that scenario the true realists?
Here’s more realism: If progressives do vote against the infrastructure bill, the world won’t end. It’s not that uncommon for bills to fail the first time, then pass later.
Indeed, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), the House Budget Committee chair, says Democratic leaders might pull the infrastructure bill if progressives appear close to ensuring its initial failure, until the Senate is close to finishing the reconciliation bill.
“I think probably what would happen is we wouldn’t vote on it — leadership would pull it,” Yarmuth told me. “Nancy would go to the moderates and say, ‘We don’t have the votes. You want it to go down, or you want to live to fight another day?’ ”
And that would be okay. It would be a step toward the eventual goal of getting Biden’s whole agenda right. In this scenario, both sides would get their way.
This time, progressives are the ones focused on a hardheaded inside-game assessment of how to make Washington “work,” one built around the sort of ideal of “compromise” that centrists constantly claim to represent.