After a long on-again, off-again back-and-forth standoff over whether they would muster the votes to pass President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, progressives finally folded like a cheap suit late Friday night and passed it, in exchange for almost nothing.
Consider how progressives’ demands have shifted these last few months. They went from saying they would pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill only after the Senate passed a $3.5 trillion social spending bill to passing that bill in exchange only for an agreement for a House bill on a half-sized $1.75 trillion package if the Congressional Budget Office agrees it would pay for itself and knowing that there’s little chance even if that happens that it will make it through the Senate intact.
Progressives and Nancy Pelosi can dress this up however they like. But the trade House Democrats made was passing a mainstream, popular bill that will become law, in exchange for some progress on a sprawling progressive bill that won’t—at least not anytime soon and certainly not without major overhauls.
The main obstacle to their costly “human infrastructure” plan has always been Joe Manchin and his fellow moderates in the Senate, whom House moderates are in no way deputized to negotiate on behalf of.
Although the decision for progressives to cave was unclear until late on Friday, it had been foreshadowed on Monday, with Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal’s statement saying, “The president says he can get 51 votes for the bill, we are going to trust him… We’re tired of continuing to wait for one or two people.”
Jayapal’s comment was couched in forceful language, but the message reeked of surrender.
As Punchbowl News’ Jake Sherman put it, “So now [Rep. Jayapal] is going to send the infrastructure bill to Biden’s desk without assurances on BBB [Build Back Better]? Progressives are in a much worse spot than they were last week. Manchin is saying he’d be fine voting against bbb. What a bizarre turn.”
The corollary to progressives folding is Joe Manchin winning. That’s the other headline, based on the likelihood that infrastructure week has finally arrived, after all this time. Despite all the criticism and harassment and pressure, he never budged. Having told progressives, “I’m comfortable with nothing” on the social spending bill, Manchin was essentially channeling Michael Corleone: “My offer is this: nothing.” Manchin then held a press conference suggesting, among other things, that he wanted to see a CBO report before voting on the reconciliation bill.
I keep thinking of that picture of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the State of the Union, glaring at Manchin. At the time, conservative Jonah Goldberg wrote that “Manchin is a much more important and influential Democrat than” AOC, despite everyone “paying more attention to her.” AOC ended up as one of the handful of progressives, including several of her fellow “Squad” members, who voted against the infrastructure bill late Friday night, telling a reporter “this is bullshit.”
But it was the timing that seemed like bullshit to many other Democrats. While it’s impossible to know whether passing this bill a week earlier would have been enough to get Terry McAuliffe over the top, it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.
For one thing, the bipartisan bill includes billions for Virginia. More importantly, it would have changed the narrative about Joe Biden’s impotent presidency, and it would have changed the conversation—at least for a news cycle or two—from the culture war that was raging in Virginia.
It’s ironic that this exact vote could have just as easily been taken a week or a month ago—before the painful and embarrassing Virginia gubernatorial election.
It’s baffling to me why progressives ended up holding out just long enough to help torpedo Democrats’ chances in the Virginia governor’s race—and then acceded to this vote just days later. My only theory is that they feared being blamed for the loss (which explains why Jayapal started signaling the decision to back down on Monday), but couldn’t get the votes in before Friday.
It’s too late to save McAuliffe, and it’s too late to save face. But maybe they can still save Biden’s presidency. Maybe.