Democrats are bracing for potentially huge losses in next year’s midterm elections, and many believe the next few months will be the last chance for President Joe Biden to turn the tide back by passing major legislation. His signature bill, the Build Back Better Act, is currently being held up by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who is claiming that rising inflation and the level of federal debt is causing him to rethink his support for the bill. Progressives in the party have been sidelined, and are watching with horror as Manchin dictates the bill’s future.
“Whatever Congress is considering, we should do it within the limits of what we can afford,” Manchin told CNN on Monday. The West Virginia senator is trying to scale back the expanded child tax credit, calling it a major driver of inflation, according to Axios. Sen Lindsey Graham told “Fox News Sunday” that Manchin had asked him to commission a new report on the bill’s cost over 10 years from the Congressional Budget Office, which Manchin then referred to as “sobering.” On Wednesday afternoon, NBC News reported that the Senate was likely to “shelve” the bill and instead take up voting rights legislation. (Manchin opposes creating a filibuster carve-out for voting rights, so that effort faces a steep climb as well.)
Biden and Manchin have spoken several times this week, leaving congressional reporters and observers guessing about the future of the bill. Manchin’s influence is so great — or at least perceived to be so great — that some outlets have taken to referring to him as “the shadow president.” To understand why Manchin has all the leverage right now, it’s necessary to examine the bill’s recent history.
Build Back Worse
In early November, after months of negotiations, the House of Representatives passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, better known as the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The Senate had already passed the $1.2 trillion bill in August, and the passage in the House was considered a major political win for President Biden.
Right-wing Democrats in the party, like Sen. Mark Warner, had blamed Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe’s loss days earlier on House progressives. Warner held the left flank of the party responsible for the infrastructure bill’s delay, which he said depressed voter turnout. Although conservative Senate Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema had been dragging their feet for weeks, there was some truth to the accusation that progressives were also slowing the bill down.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, had been holding firm that the infrastructure bill shouldn’t move forward without a complimentary social spending bill. That piece of legislation, known as the Build Back Better bill, at the time clocked in around $3.5 trillion, and included funding for families, health care expansion and climate change mitigation. From the start, the bigger bill was the more controversial one. Sen Bernie Sanders was its primary shaper and defender in the upper chamber, even as Manchin and Sinema did all they could to whittle it down.
Biden himself had linked the bills together over the summer. The theory was that he could get Senate Republicans to support the more modest infrastructure bill to clear the 60-vote filibuster threshold, and that the bigger bill would pass the chamber along party lines through a budgetary process known as reconciliation. It was an ambitious plan from the outset, one that relied not only on both parties, but also on the various factions within the Democrats.
For the progressives, the bills needed to stay linked because the belief was that the only way Manchin, Sinema and the rest of the Democrats’ right flank would pass the social spending bill was if their hand was forced by using the infrastructure bill as leverage. Progressives wanted both bills to pass; the so-called moderates preferred just to pass infrastructure. If the bills were decoupled, progressives would have nothing to rely on other than goodwill and promises from the rest of the party that their priorities would become law.
But the huge gubernatorial loss in Virginia, coupled with a surprisingly close governor’s race in New Jersey and Biden’s cratering poll numbers, spooked the administration and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Within days, the bills were delinked. House moderates, led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, issued a statement pledging their future support for the Build Back Better Act, contingent on the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of the cost, known as scoring.
Jayapal, who had previously stared down the Gottheimer and the White House, relented. After holding the line for months, the Congressional Progressive Caucus had had enough. “We’re going to trust each other,” Jayapal said of the progressives and the centrists.
But the assurances didn’t satisfy everybody. “I’m a no,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told The Intercept. “This is bullshit.” Ocasio-Cortez was joined by Representatives Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, known collectively as “The Squad.”
“From the beginning, I have been clear that I would not be able to support the infrastructure bill without a vote on the Build Back Better Act,” Omar said in a statement on November 5. “Passing the infrastructure bill without passing the Build Back Better Act first risks leaving behind childcare, paid leave, health care, climate action, housing, education, and a roadmap to citizenship.”
The bipartisan infrastructure deal passed, and Biden signed it into law. The original timetable was for Build Back Better to get a vote by mid-November. “I am confident that during the week of November 15, the House will pass the Build Back Better Act,” Biden tweeted. It’s now more than a month later, and although the bill isn’t dead yet, every new headline about rising inflation gives Manchin additional leverage to pare it down.
From the minute Biden linked the two bills, every observer knew that as long as they traveled together, progressives would have a seat at the table. When the Congressional Progressive Caucus stayed strong and held the line, they garnered good press. Now, progressives are on the sidelines as moderates attempt to strip away money for working parents and reintroduce enormous tax cuts for upper class homeowners by raising the so-called SALT deduction cap.
Democratic leadership had promised a vote by year’s end, which is looking increasingly unlikely, if a vote happens at all. Punting to January will mean a break in benefits for recipients of the child tax credit, the single most important child anti-poverty program Congress has passed in a generation.
It would be unfair to place all of the blame for the spending bill’s death spiral at the feet of Jayapal, or even the Congressional Progressive Caucus as a whole. Biden and Pelosi lobbied the caucus relentlessly in the final days before the bills were delinked. Still, as the future of the Build Back Better act appears further in jeopardy with every passing day, it’s fair to ask whether the Congressional Progressive Caucus would have been better served standing united and threatening to kill both bills. Betting on the goodwill and promises of the rest of the party may pay off, but continuing to exercise power would have almost certainly been the better move.
There’s an underlying asymmetry to the negotiations as well. “Moderate” Democrats in both chambers were willing to let both bills die, where many progressives were hesitant to walk away with nothing. History appears likely to vindicate the six Squad members who knew that letting the infrastructure bill move forward on its own meant the social spending bill was dead in the water.