How Democrats Got Desperate

Progressives gave President Joe Biden a partial victory by passing his infrastructure bill, but the fate of the rest of their agenda remains as uncertain as ever.

A black-and-white photo of Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington State surrounded by reporters
Drew Angerer / Getty

The progressives blinked.

For months, the feisty left flank of the House Democratic Caucus insisted it would not provide the votes to pass President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package until the Senate first approved the rest of the president’s economic agenda. At minimum, progressives said, all 50 Senate Democrats—and especially the chamber’s two most centrist members, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—would have to at least commit to Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan. Twice the House liberals backed up their tough talk with action (or more precisely, inaction) by rebuffing Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s bid to vote on the infrastructure bill.

Then the off-year voters had their say. Three days after Republicans swept Democrats in Virginia and nearly toppled them in New Jersey, the progressives released the legislative hostage they had held captive for three months and helped pass the bipartisan infrastructure package. Fearing a total collapse of the Democratic agenda—and anticipating that they would be blamed for its failure—they had determined that they could hold out no longer. They were, in a word, desperate.

In return for helping to send the Senate-passed infrastructure bill to Biden’s desk, the progressives secured only a promise—that the House would eventually pass the far more expansive Build Back Better Act, a $1.75 trillion bill that provides universal prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds, expanded child-care benefits, four weeks of paid family leave, and historic investments in the climate fight. When they arrived at the Capitol this morning, House Democrats believed they would be voting on both the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act. But a small group of moderates—just large enough to sink a party-line vote because of the Democrats’ minuscule majority—told Pelosi they would not vote for the larger proposal without a full estimate from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office of its impact on federal deficits.

The only vote that occurred on the Build Back Better Act was a procedural move to set up debate later this month. The fate of the progressives’ agenda—and Biden’s—remains as uncertain as ever.

“That’s the messiness of democracy with very slim margins,” Representative Ro Khanna of California, a House progressive who last year served as a national co-chair of Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, told me earlier this week, a hint of resignation in his voice.

In truth, progressives had begun to move days before this week’s elections, and many had privately pushed for a shift in course weeks ago. What finally changed their minds, however, was the Democratic Party’s deteriorating political standing and the realization that their strategy of holding up one bill to pass the other had failed. Although Biden shared the progressives’ sense of urgency to deliver on their promises, the other most powerful Joe in Washington—Manchin—did not. The West Virginia Democrat refused to endorse the framework Biden announced last week. He has continued to negotiate, but wants the party to slow its rush to enact such an expansive, and expensive, agenda. Progressives got tired of waiting for him; their message now, as delivered by Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington State, is that persuading Manchin is Biden’s job and they trust the president to win him over.

“I do think it’s going to be a longer process than I hoped and than maybe I assumed, but I think he will ultimately get there,” Khanna said. “In an ideal world, would it be great to have had 50 senators publicly declare their support? Of course. Is there some risk that things that we want don’t make it into the final [bill]? Of course. But am I confident that the final bill will be similar in substance to the framework the president proposed? Yes.”

That’s if there’s a final bill at all. The Senate is a crowded graveyard of House-passed aspirations, whether it’s the major Obama-era climate bill that died there more than a decade ago, or the GOP’s long-promised repeal of the Affordable Care Act that the late Senator John McCain killed with his famous thumbs-down. The progressives’ acquiescence to a vote on the infrastructure legislation means that Biden won’t come away empty-handed from his ambitious gamble earlier in the spring that he could win passage of both a significant bipartisan bill and a broader social-spending and climate proposal on a party-line vote. Passage of the bipartisan bill is good news for the president and even better news for the states, cities, and towns that are relying on its infusion of federal funding for new and repaired roads, bridges, and rail systems, along with the construction jobs that come with it. But formally separating the infrastructure proposal from the broader, $1.75 trillion bill raises the chances that the latter will stall out completely, which would represent a huge defeat for progressives.

Progressives felt that the Senate “had moved as far as they could get,” Joseph Geevarghese, the executive director of Our Revolution, the advocacy group that grew out of Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, told me. “That’s just a strategic decision. What they’re signaling is they are trying to align with the president to get things done.”

Hovering over the Democrats is a mounting fear among both moderates and progressives that the party has damaged its standing with voters and is on the verge of wasting what might be a short window of opportunity to govern. This week’s electoral rebukes in Virginia and New Jersey just exacerbated that frustration. Moderates blamed progressives for holding up final passage of the infrastructure bill, while progressives faulted Manchin and Sinema for delaying the bulk of Biden’s agenda. When Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act in March, the president’s approval rating stood at 53 percent; it’s now below 43 percent, and a GOP congressional victory in 2022 seems to many in Washington almost a foregone conclusion. “There’s not much to show for the Democrats being in power in Washington,” Geevarghese said, “and I think that’s the message the American electorate sent.”

House progressives weren’t the only players who changed course in recent days. For weeks, Pelosi had assured her members that she would not bring up a bill in the House that could not also pass the Senate; the pledge was aimed at electorally vulnerable lawmakers who worried that Republicans would attack them for voting for liberal priorities that, because they would never become law, would not actually deliver benefits to their constituents. But the speaker shifted after Manchin declined to endorse Biden’s framework. Pelosi ordered that the House bill include a provision requiring four weeks of paid family and medical leave, which Democrats had previously removed and which remains unlikely to clear the Senate because of Manchin’s opposition. The move helped mollify progressives, but it also served as an acknowledgment that the bill before the House was just an initial offer, not a final product.

In the end, most House Democrats didn’t much care. While Pelosi worked to win over the last resisting moderates for the “Build Back Better” plan, progressives were eager to vote for both bills. They had failed to secure the guarantees they wanted, though they insisted that their strategy succeeded in bringing Democrats to the brink of a transformative legislative victory. “The obvious message is [voters] don’t want gridlock,” Khanna said, reflecting on the elections. “They want us to get something done.”

Once it became clear that the House would not vote on the Build Back Better Act today, progressives initially said they’d again refuse to support the infrastructure bill. But they backed down after a direct plea from Biden and once the moderate holdouts pledged to vote for the larger bill if the cost estimate matched the party’s expectations. Ultimately, only six House progressives voted against the infrastructure bill. The measure passed the House late Friday night, 228–206, with help from 13 Republicans who voted yes.

In voting finally for the infrastructure bill, progressives gave Biden something tangible to show for the past several months of his bargaining with Congress. But they also revealed their desperation, and that, as a certain self-styled dealmaker who went on to become president once observed, can be a dangerous thing. “The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it,” Donald Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal. “That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead.”