"Inexcusable": Did Biden's infrastructure meeting with House Dems backfire?

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Remember that Pelosi will need all of the moderates in her caucus plus a few centrist Republicans to eventually pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill. That’s because some — not all, but some — progressives are demanding that the Senate pass a reconciliation bill before the House votes on anything. But there’s no chance of that happening. The most that Senate Dems like Manchin and Sinema will do in the near term to reassure House lefties that reconciliation will ultimately get done is agree to an informal public “framework.”

That may not be good enough for Pramila Jayapal, the Squad, and a few other hardliners. If they refuse to vote yes on the bipartisan bill until the Senate passes reconciliation, Pelosi has no chance of getting the bill through unless she gets help from the GOP. And until yesterday, it looked like she might. Somewhere between 10 and 20 Republican centrists were expected to vote yes.

Then Joe Biden showed up.

Biden shocked Dems yesterday when he attended their caucus meeting for what everyone expected would be a pep talk about passing the bipartisan bill immediately and trusting him and Senate Dems to deliver on reconciliation eventually. The president wants to put some legislative points on the board, right? His job approval is tanking and this would be a major win for him. Instead, Biden endorsed the progressive position that the bipartisan bill and reconciliation should remain linked, which means the first doesn’t get passed until there’s a deal on the second. “The fact that the president came to the Hill and whipped against his own bill is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,” said one source to Politico, marveling at Biden’s strategy.

Centrist Republicans were irate afterward. They may be able to dodge conservative wrath by voting for the bipartisan bill so long as it’s viewed by voters in isolation, as an expenditure to improve roads and bridges. But the more Biden links it to the reconciliation social-welfare mega-bill, the more politically toxic it becomes for GOPers. And again, Pelosi probably needs their votes. Unless she can get the hardline lefties to bend, the bipartisan bill is DOA without Republican help.

Which means Biden’s pitch yesterday to keep the two bills linked may end up killing both.

“I don’t know what he could do to spike this thing even more,” said centrist Republican Peter Meijer after hearing of Biden’s pitch to Dems. Nicole Malliotakis, another centrist Republican, told reporters she’s “certainly not going to vote for” the bipartisan bill if it’s being linked to the reconciliation package. This isn’t the first time Biden’s put his foot in his mouth by insisting publicly on keeping the bills linked, either. Recall that he said the same thing back in June, outraging Senate Republicans and forcing him to walk back his comments in the days after in order to mollify them. Now here he is repeating his mistake at a critical moment.

Thanks to his blundering, Pelosi may have to do this exclusively with Democratic votes. And she can afford to lose only three.

It wasn’t just Republicans who were pissed after Biden’s pitch to House Dems yesterday. Centrist Democrats who thought the president was about to ride to their rescue by lobbying progressives to pass the bipartisan bill immediately were furious upon seeing him side with the left by calling for the two bills to stay linked. Josh Gottheimer, the most outspoken of the centrists, explicitly criticized Pelosi afterward for breaking her promise to hold a vote on the bipartisan bill this week:

Stephanie Murphy, another centrist, said in her own statement that she was “profoundly disappointed and disillusioned by this process.” Pointedly, contradicting Biden, she added, “There is no—zero—linkage between these two bills in my mind. I will continue to assess each bill on its own merits and to cast my vote accordingly.” Yet another moderate Dem, Jim Costa, told reporters later that Biden’s pitch at the caucus meeting was a “disappointment,” saying of the bipartisan bill, “if it’s not a priority for him, then maybe it’s just not a priority period.”

A fourth moderate who didn’t want to go on the record told Politico that Biden’s message to the House caucus was “a shocking failure to meet the moment.”

Did the president just tank his own infrastructure package?

Probably not. As unhappy as the centrists are, they desperately need something to pass so that they have an accomplishment to show their constituents before the midterms. They’re the ones whose seats are in danger, after all, not the progressives’. They have no choice but to support whatever Pelosi ends up putting on the floor. But watching Biden hang them out to dry yesterday won’t be good for comity within Pelosi’s caucus going forward. And this scoop from the Times that’s drawing buzz today will only deepen their suspicion that our “centrist” president is working against the centrists behind the scenes:

In meetings and discussions with progressive lawmakers, Mr. Klain has been blunt about the president’s belief that Democrats need to reach a framework agreement on broader social policy legislation before they can approve the infrastructure measure, according to three officials familiar with the discussions.

That appears to have emboldened progressives.

One person familiar with Mr. Klain’s calls said they left liberal lawmakers with the impression that the White House was encouraging them to “hold firm” against an infrastructure vote until a deal could be reached with two centrist Democratic senators, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have demanded changes to Mr. Biden’s $3.5 trillion plan.

The White House was lobbying progressives to stand firm against Biden’s own bipartisan roads-and-bridges bill? As I say, House Dems have no choice but to vote for anything in the end since their asses are on the line next November. But Joe Manchin’s and Kyrsten Sinema’s aren’t. If Manchin and Sinema react to the news about Klain’s betrayal by walking away from negotiations, the entire infrastructure process will break down.

In fact, “betrayal” is the name of the game this week for Democrats:

In public, the explanation from Biden and party leaders is that a delayed BIF [bipartisan infrastructure] vote gives them time to strike a deal with moderates. But in private, the divisions within the party are no longer merely ideological or procedural; there is a deeper distrust — even at the most senior levels — that will make striking a deal all the more difficult.

To boil down what is happening into a simple “progressives vs. moderates” dynamic ignores larger escalating tensions — between Democratic leaders on the Hill and in the White House; between the Senate and the House; between rank-and-file Democrats and their president…

“[Democratic leaders are] trying to keep everyone together, but the White House has really, significantly contributed to some of the problems,” one senior House Democrat who backs both bills and isn’t in either the moderate or progressive camp told us.

Nancy Pelosi’s two chief partners in trying to get infrastructure done are Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer. In the span of 48 hours, she (a) discovered that Schumer kept her in the dark for months about Manchin’s price on reconciliation and (b) had Biden stroll into her caucus meeting and tell her members that they shouldn’t pass the bipartisan bill until a reconciliation deal is done. With friends like those two, who needs enemies?

This morning she had no choice but to make it official: Infrastructure week is now infrastructure month.

She and the two idiots she’s partnered with will spend the next few weeks trying to turn a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package into one in the $1.5 to $2 trillion range to make it palatable to Manchin and Sinema, assuming the latter haven’t already quit this process in disgust. Dems could cut some programs from their proposed framework entirely but it’s more likely that they’ll keep everything in there and simply make the programs “temporary” to reduce their cost. After all, “temporary” entitlements are rarely temporary after voters begin to depend on them. “If we get some of these programs in like child care, like paid family leave, those will sell themselves,” said Dem Rep. Peter Welch. Once Americans get a taste of new sugar from Uncle Sam, “nobody’s gonna want that to go away,” including Republicans. You may not like Welch’s politics, but he’s not wrong.

Update: Kyrsten Sinema is out a new statement this afternoon and it’s a doozy. She doesn’t say explicitly that she’s done negotiating but the word “inexcusable” is used. Also: “I have never, and would never, agree to any bargain that would hold one piece of legislation hostage to another.” Uh oh.