For months, Democratic negotiations over Joe Biden’s twin spending bills were stuck in a cycle of infighting that felt it would never end: the unstoppable force of progressive overexcitement up against the immovable object of moderate resistance.
That deadlock was finally broken late on Friday night, when the House passed an infrastructure bill worth $550 billion in new spending. The breakthrough came after a head-spinning day on the Hill (a day that progressive congressman Mark Pocan described as a “clusterfuck”).
At the end of a frantic back-and-forth between her party’s left and right wings — mediated by Hill leadership and helped by plenty of arm-twisting from the president — Nancy Pelosi secured the required votes, and Biden had a legislative win that he has desperately needed. But only thanks to Republican support.
Progressive Democrats have long insisted that they would only vote yes on infrastructure legislation in tandem with a vote on the larger social spending bill. In the end, heavy White House lobbying and a letter from moderate Democrats, in which they agreed to vote for the Build Back Better legislation “as expeditiously as we receive fiscal information from the Congressional Budget Office” and assuming that information was in line with White House funding estimates, was enough to persuade most progressives to vote yes.
The six exceptions were the members of the Squad: Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Talib.
In a characteristically histrionic statement, Pressley said she “refused to choose between the livelihoods of the union workers who build our highways and bridges, and the children and healthcare workers who care for our children, elderly and disabled loved ones.” AOC was more direct: “I’m a no. This is bullshit.”
But thirteen Republican “yes” votes rendered the Squad’s objections academic (and it is worth noting that several Squad member “no” votes were cast after the infrastructure bill had already received enough votes to pass).
The backlash on the right against those Republicans who helped deliver good news for Biden will face charges of political malpractice from their own side. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, will be questioned about the competence of his whipping operation.
The mood in the chamber last night was bad-blooded and boisterous. As Politico reports:
“Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) aggressively heckled Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.), shouting about a provision in a Democratic bill to hire more IRS enforcement. ‘You’re an idiot,’ Carbajal shouted back at him as he walked away.
“Before that a rowdy group of Republicans taunted Democrats by singing across the chamber floor a lyric synonymous with schoolyard defeat: ‘Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye.’ Democrats had mocked Republicans with the same chant in 2017, a year before the GOP lost the House after failing to repeal Obamacare.”
The Democrats’ electoral humiliation earlier in the week provided much needed urgency to the Hill negotiations. And that mood change certainly helped deliver a sorely needed legislative win. But it is worth noting that even Tuesday night’s wake-up call was not enough to pass the infrastructure legislation without Republican support. Furthermore, Democrats had started Friday intending to hold votes on both pieces of legislation. In the end they got one of the two. The future of their larger social spending bill remains an open question.
On Saturday, Biden vowed that his Build Back Better would get passed. “I’m not going to get into who made what commitments to me,” he said in a speech at the White House. “I don’t negotiate in public, but I feel comfortable. I feel confident that we will have enough votes to pass the Build Back Better bill.” Senate moderates may yet have something to say about that.