Showdown: Pelosi says House will vote on bipartisan infrastructure bill before reconciliation, angering progressives

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Probably not a good sign for Democratic Party unity this morning that Ilhan Omar has taken to calling Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema “Republicans,” huh?

For weeks Pelosi backed up the leftists in her caucus who insisted that neither infrastructure bill would pass unless both passed together. They were a package deal. That was the only way progressives had leverage over centrist Dems in the House and Senate like Manchin and Sinema. Centrists want the bipartisan roads-and-bridges bill, progressives want the reconciliation social welfare mega-bill. If centrists don’t agree to give lefties what they want, the left will repay the favor.

Pelosi was with them on that, vowing not to bring the bipartisan bill to the floor for a standalone vote. But in the end, she had to face a hard reality: Progressives have no leverage here. With the Senate 50/50, Manchin and Sinema get to dictate their terms. And it seems obvious by now that the centrists aren’t as invested in the bipartisan bill politically as progressives are in the reconciliation bill. Manchin can live with the entire infrastructure effort going down in flames, which would save the country trillions in new spending. He might even be rewarded for it in West Virginia. But lefties see this as their best and probably last chance for many years to dump truckloads of money into progressive pet causes. For them to have any chance of that happening, they’re going to have to follow this process on the centrists’ terms.

On top of all that, spending for highway and transit programs expires on Thursday, the day of the vote on the bipartisan bill. If we’re going to fund those programs, Pelosi is thinking, we might as well get a huge win on the board for Biden by passing the bipartisan bill. And not just for Biden: Centrist House Dems who are facing tough reelection bids next year are frantic to pass the bipartisan bill, wanting to prove that Democratic control of government can achieve big things. If the entire infrastructure package goes down because progressives won’t budge without reconciliation, those centrist Dems will have nothing to show for their two years in office. Pelosi’s trying to protect them ahead of the midterms.

So now we wait in suspense. Will progressives, led by Pramila Jayapal and the Squad, follow through and tank the bipartisan bill on Thursday or can Pelosi peel off enough lefties to get it through with a bit of Republican help?

And if the bill does go down on Thursday, is that the end for infrastructure or will centrists try to resurrect it by making a deal with the left on reconciliation later?

The speaker had declared earlier this summer that the House would only pass Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill if both chambers had also agreed to the party’s broader social spending plan. The California Democrat privately told members that the thinking began to change 10 days ago when she learned that Democrats would need to scale back the initial $3.5 trillion price tag for that spending bill — a massive legislative task.

“It all changed, so our approach had to change,” Pelosi told her caucus Monday, according to Democrats present…

Pelosi and key members of her caucus are focused on reaching a public agreement with key senators on the total cost of the social spending plan as well as other major aspects. But it’s unclear exactly how many specifics Democrats will secure from Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the Senate’s most vocal centrists, in time for their Thursday vote, according to people close to their thinking — which Democrats believe has essentially forced their party to delink the two bills.

Pelosi’s not just playing chicken with progressives here. She’s playing chicken with Manchin and Sinema too, hoping that the looming vote on the bipartisan bill on Thursday will force the centrists in the Senate in the next few days to provide specifics on the reconciliation bill that they haven’t provided so far. What’s their topline number? Which programs in the bill will they insist on keeping and which are dealbreakers? House progressives like Ro Khanna are trying to pin them down on that, promising that they’ll vote for the standalone bipartisan bill on Thursday if Manchin and Sinema at least show their cards on reconciliation.

But again, they have no leverage here. It’s Joe Manchin’s world; the left is just living in it. And Manchin knows it.

[E]ven as Pelosi attempted to rally her caucus around the new plan, the senator who would be key to any deal showed no movement.

“It would be a shame if anyone took credit for sinking an infrastructure bill this country needs,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), adding that those warnings would not affect him. “I don’t do really good on threats,” he said.

Despite Pelosi’s promise to vote on the bipartisan bill on Thursday, Jayapal is still claiming that she’s a no until the reconciliation bill is ready. “We need the reconciliation bill, and so this is a situation where the vast, vast, vast majority of Democrats want to get the president’s agenda done,” she said last night on MSNBC. “It can’t be a pinky promise, right, Rachel? It’s got to be an actual bill that is written, the legislative text is written, the numbers are agreed to, everything is agreed to.” AOC is also opposed barring “new information”:

Ilhan Omar and Cori Bush also want the bills to stay linked. Pelosi will have some number of centrist Republicans voting yes on the bipartisan bill so she can afford to lose a few lefties on it — but only a few. And Jayapal claims that around 60 progressives have pledged not to vote for the bipartisan bill unless the two bills remain linked.

It all comes back to Manchin and Sinema. If they’re willing to agree to a “framework” on reconciliation before Thursday, maybe that’ll give House progressives enough reassurance that they’ll suck it up and vote yes on the bipartisan bill. Joe Biden is reportedly meeting with Manchin today to twist his arm to that effect. But look at it from Manchin’s perspective. Let’s say he decides that he doesn’t want to pass any reconciliation bill and announces that today. What’s the left going to do about it? They can tank the bipartisan bill on Thursday, sure, but how likely is it that Biden and Pelosi will allow that bill to stay dead knowing the electoral consequences if they do? “I’ll guarantee you this: The infrastructure bill will pass before November 2022, before the election,” Manchin said yesterday. “I’ll guarantee that bill will be passed before November 2022.”

And he’s almost certainly right. Biden and Pelosi will move heaven and earth to get that win on the board before the midterms for the benefit of their vulnerable centrist members, twisting whatever progressive arms they need to in order to make it happen. Manchin doesn’t need to lift a finger on reconciliation if he doesn’t want to. The bipartisan bill will pass — eventually. Which means the real suspense in Washington now isn’t whether that bill becomes law, it’s whether centrist Dems are willing to do anything on reconciliation or if they’re working up the nerve to tell their party that that bill is dead. (Or at least needs to be much, much, much smaller.) Stay tuned.