Senate progressives warn Pelosi: Don't break your promise by passing the bipartisan bill before reconciliation is done

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

I can’t remember when we last had a “Dems in disarray” news cycle as enjoyable as this one.

Pramila Jayapal’s left-wing allies in the Senate finally rode to her rescue this afternoon, backing up House progressives in their standoff with the centrists. Centrists want Pelosi to keep her promise to hold a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill on September 27 even though the reconciliation bill is nowhere near ready, as lefties had hopes. Progs want Pelosi to break her promise and cancel the vote, terrified that if the bipartisan bill passes, centrists like Manchin and Sinema in the Senate will double-cross them by dropping the reconciliation bill altogether. So they’re promising to tank the bipartisan bill if forced to vote on it, a warning to centrists that they won’t get what they want unless the left gets what it wants.

In short, neither wing of the party trusts the other an iota.

The statement below doesn’t go quite as far as to encourage House progressives to vote no on the bipartisan bill if it comes to the floor on Monday but it’s a strong nudge in that direction. Manchin and Sinema have been quietly advising the centrists in the House, boosting their leverage throughout this process. Senate lefties are now reminding them that two can play at that game:

There’s a major strategic difference between the Bernie wing and the Manchin wing in this case, though: The bipartisan bill that Manchin and Sinema want has already passed. Those two hold the fate of reconciliation in their hands, leaving progressives with no leverage. Why didn’t Schumer avoid that outcome by treating the two bills as a package deal in the Senate the way Pelosi has in the House? If he had refused to bring the bipartisan roads-and-bridges legislation to the floor until the centrists were on board with the left’s mega-bill, there wouldn’t now be an asymmetry in power between the two wings.

There’s a second asymmetry. Progressives really, really, really want the reconciliation bill with trillions in welfare spending to pass. It’s not clear that centrists are similarly invested in passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill. They’d like it to pass, but if they’re forced to choose between passing both bills and passing neither, which would they choose? Hmmmm:

Democrats close to the centrists say progressives are vastly overplaying their hand. 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.

Five votes is all it would take to kill the reconciliation bill in the House. Pelosi might get a dozen Republicans for the bipartisan bill — although Steve Scalise is whipping against it, which is notable — but there’ll be zero for the progressive mega-bill. If House centrists don’t want that to pass, they have it within their power to make sure that it doesn’t.

Charles Cooke considers the political incentives for centrist Dems and wonders why they’d bother voting for the reconciliation bill under any circumstances. They’ll probably lose their seats next fall no matter what but they’ll certainly lose them if they drop trillions in additional spending with concomitant tax hikes for new programs at a moment when the country is drowning in COVID-era debt.

Joe Biden is already dangerously unpopular, and if he and his party cram a set of extraordinary changes to the American order through a 50–50 Senate and a 220–212 House, he will become more so. The United States already has more debt that it has had since World War II; its sprawling entitlement system is already in crisis; and this year alone, it has already run up a budget deficit of $3 trillion. If, in a period of dangerous inflation, the incumbent party elects to make all of these problems worse, it will be wiped out. Presumably, this outcome would be worth it to radicals such as Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Pramila Jayapal, who would be able to obtain the dramatic change they seek without losing their own safe seats in the process. But to the centrists, who are in essence being asked to sacrifice themselves in order to achieve a set of policies they didn’t want in the first place, the calculation should be quite different. As they seem increasingly to understand, all of the political boxes that they need to check ahead of next year’s midterms can be ticked off by passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill that has already emerged from the Senate. And if that’s not an option, the next best choice is passing nothing.

Devil’s advocate: If five to 10 House centrists tank the left’s dream of a reconciliation mega-bill, progressives in their districts will be so incandescently furious with them that they’ll be unelectable regardless. In which case their best bet may be to pass a pared down reconciliation bill and hope that the smaller price tag and the remaining goodies in it are enough to keep Dems and Republicans in their districts each grudgingly mollified.

Biden met with with Schumer and Pelosi this afternoon and is meeting with Manchin, Sinema, and other centrists as I write this at 3:45 p.m. ET. He’ll meet with Jayapal and the leftists later today. One leading centrist Republican seems to think that Pelosi will put the bipartisan bill on the floor on Monday to keep her promise to the moderates and will allow progressives to vote it down, with a promise that she’ll bring the bill back up again once the Senate’s reconciliation bill passes. If that happens, it would mean Pelosi is calling Sinema’s bluff: Remember, Sinema has supposedly told Biden that if the bipartisan bill doesn’t pass the House on Monday, she’s done.

She’s never said that publicly, though, so she wouldn’t lose (much) face if she ends up quietly backing away from her threat. And maybe she’ll have no choice. As much as lefties don’t want to make trouble for her in 50/50 Arizona, they’ll never forgive her if she tanks their reconciliation dreams. She may be looking at a serious primary if she ends up blocking their agenda. I think she’ll reconsider.