Disarray: Sure looks like the bipartisan infrastructure bill is going down hard today

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

Reportedly Pelosi and her team are gathering in her office this morning to discuss the way forward. The “way forward” was supposed to be a vote on the bipartisan bill today, I thought.

If there’s a new “way forward,” that can mean only one thing. She doesn’t have the votes.

The fact that members of Biden’s cabinet are suddenly downplaying the need for a vote today also doesn’t bode well for Dems:

Pelosi could put the bill on the floor in the expectation that progressives will vote it down, if only to signal to Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema in the strongest possible way that lefties won’t bend to their demands. But (a) Pelosi said a few days ago that she won’t call a vote on any bill unless she knows she has the votes to pass it and (b) there’s a small chance that enough Republicans would vote for the bill that it’ll pass, destroying progressives’ leverage over Dem centrists to do a deal on reconciliation.

Barring a last-second total capitulation by one side or the other, then, nothing’s passing today. Joe Manchin’s statement last night made clear that he’s not prepared to commit to a reconciliation mega-bill, which all but ended prospects of a deal anytime soon. To make the point even plainer, he told reporters yesterday that he’s optimistic a deal can happen sometime this year. Not sometime this afternoon.

Which means Biden’s and Pelosi’s only hope of the bipartisan bill passing the House total is an unconditional surrender by progressives. But I don’t think that’s happening, for four reasons.

1. Lefties are genuinely pissed at Manchin and Sinema and want to punish them for playing coy about reconciliation for so long. This quote from Manchin in particular raised progressive hackles yesterday:

A few months ago, Manchin was saying the opposite:

Progressives feel double-crossed and more suspicious than ever that his professed support for a reconciliation bill was just a ploy to try to bait them into passing the bipartisan bill. They’re angry at Sinema too, not just for refusing to name her price on reconciliation but for issuing ultimatums. “Why did Senator Sinema create this deadline that, if we don’t do something Thursday, ‘I’m going to walk?’ Who legislates like that?” said lefty Rep. Ro Khanna on MSNBC last night. “She’s a first term senator! As a first term member of the Congress, or even a third term member of Congress, if I said, ‘If I’m not going to get my way, I’m going to walk,’ the Speaker would laugh at me, understandably.”

2. Lefties want to prove they’re a force within the party that won’t perpetually give in to centrist demands. Think of this as their tea-party moment, where they drive a hard bargain to show the establishment that the demands of the base can no longer be ignored in the name of “electability.”

“I definitely have a sense that the Progressive Caucus means business,” said Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), a member of the caucus. “You do need credible threats to force people to talk. Tomorrow’s in that category of a credible threat.”

That progressives are making credible threats to begin with is yet another sign of changing political dynamics in the party. Typically, they have constituted a boisterous wing of the party, but one unable to effectively use its leverage to force their will in major legislative showdowns.

They got beat by centrists in the last two Democratic presidential primaries but they’ve amassed enough support in a closely divided House that they can force centrists to compromise in the name of getting anything done. So that’s what they’re going to do. Besides, it’s not progressives who’ll be tossed out on their ears next year if Democrats fail to accomplish anything. It’s the centrists who will. So why shouldn’t they have to bend to get stuff passed?

3. Lefties have Biden on their side. He ran for president as a centrist and has been a consummate establishmentarian for nearly 50 years in Washington. But in this case he’s spent more time lobbying Manchin and Sinema to show their cards on reconciliation than he has on getting progressives in the House to just pass the damned bipartisan bill already. That’s because, as lefties have never tired of saying over the past few weeks, the reconciliation bill is Biden’s own agenda. He campaigned on big bold promises for new spending on entitlements and climate change. The centrists are standing in the way of that, not the lefties. In fact, after Manchin’s statement last night calling $3.5 trillion for reconciliation a case of fiscal insanity (which is true, of course), House progressive leader Pramila Jayapal fired back by saying, “I assume he is saying that the president is insane, because this is the president’s agenda.”

She’s right. The president is aligned with the radicals here. If he’s serious about getting his agenda passed, he should be — and is — siding with the left in trying to pressure the centrists into going big on reconciliation. The only lever of pressure available to them is to tank the bipartisan bill and hope that Manchin and Sinema don’t walk away from infrastructure entirely.

4. Lefties learned a hard lesson more than a decade ago when they backed off their demands for including a public option in ObamaCare in the name of forging a compromise that could pass Congress. Twelve years later, there’s still no public option. And their concessions to the centrists in that case ended up achieving nothing electorally for the party, producing a Republican mega-wave in the 2010 midterms. So now progressives are taking a different approach: Since unified control of government in Washington is rare, you should get everything you can while you can and let the electoral chips fall where they may.

The public option was, after all, a popular component of the bill. But the accommodations went beyond that. The bill’s authors also delayed the distribution of subsidies to buy insurance to, in part, help keep the price tag under $1 trillion, a symbolic number that bothered moderates. That delay meant that no one felt one of the most tangible, positive, impacts of the law for years. As one operative who worked on the bill put it: “That was suicidal.”

The progressive faction today looks at that history and asks: Why, exactly, should we do that again?

The reconciliation package is popular. It is the Biden agenda. If its passage is materially threatened because moderates — having been satiated by getting the infrastructure deal done — no longer feel compelled to support it, then the party will once again be taking the suicidal path. Or so progressives believe.

Bottom line: There’s now a 99 percent chance, conservatively, that Pelosi pulls the bill today. Then the suspense will shift to Manchin and Sinema. Will they begin negotiating on reconciliation, a de facto cave to progressive pressure tactics? Or will they go nuclear by walking away and saying, “Let us know when you’ve passed the bipartisan bill in the House and we’ll talk”?