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Now that progressives have given up on their "hostage" strategy for reconciliation, what was the point?

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

We’ve all been distracted this week by more pressing news, like the Democratic apocalypse on Tuesday night. But don’t let it escape your notice that House lefties have quietly abandoned the strategy they stuck with for two months, refusing to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill in the House until the Senate did … something on the Build Back Better reconciliation bill. Some progressives wanted the Senate to pass an actual bill, others wanted legislative language, others demanded at least a written agreed-to framework. But Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema weren’t getting their precious roads-and-bridges bill until lefties got … something on social-welfare spending. The bipartisan bill was their hostage. Manchin and Sinema had to pay the ransom if they wanted that hostage released.

That hostage has now been released. And Manchin and Sinema didn’t pay jack, for the simple reason that they didn’t have to. The left never had any leverage over the center, a point others have tried to make to them. In the end, Manchin didn’t care if they shot the hostage or not.

So progressives finally let the hostage go. But by waiting as long as they did to accept reality, they effectively shot Terry McAuliffe’s campaign instead.

They could have done that at any point over the last two months and given McAuliffe and Biden a little something positive to talk about. Instead they held out until it was too late to get anything done before Virginia voted, belatedly realized that they were going to take the fall for an increasingly likely McAuliffe defeat, and pivoted to their new “strategy” of passing the bipartisan bill and a progressive-friendly reconciliation bill through the House instead. The House version of reconciliation is toilet paper, though; Manchin hasn’t agreed to much of it so it won’t become law. For months Pramila Jayapal insisted that the Senate had to produce something that was acceptable to the House but in the end she ended up agreeing to produce something which she knew wouldn’t be acceptable to the Senate.

It’s a full surrender, absurdly spun by claiming that the House is doing something meaningful for the left by passing the bipartisan bill and a meaningless reconciliation bill together:

What Nancy Pelosi’s thinking right now: Why the hell didn’t they surrender a week earlier, when it might have done the party some good?

She knows the answer, though. It was the pernicious influence of Ron Klain (and Joe Biden?), egging on House progressives to continue to oppose passage of the bipartisan bill until centrists came around on a reconciliation deal. Why Klain took that position with Election Day impending is anyone’s guess. Maybe he’d been led to believe Manchin and Sinema were close to a deal and just a little more resolve by House progs to drive a hard bargain would tip them over. But with hindsight, it looks like egregious political malpractice. As Biden’s job approval hemorrhaged throughout September and October and Glenn Youngkin began to climb in the polls, the White House kept whispering to lefties not to budge. The result was disaster. Mickey Kaus:

In an extraordinary story last week, Politico reported how Klain, a few days before the Virginia election, decided to side with progressives (led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal) who wanted to vote against Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s attempt to hurriedly pass the bipartisan bill and give Biden at least one win before the Virginia vote.

Pelosi’s plan would have required pressuring Jayapal’s Progs, of course, but House leaders say this was possible—and why would Pelosi make the attempt if she didn’t think it was possible? The idea was that Biden would travel to Capitol HIll and ask for the progressives’ votes personally. Instead, what happened was Jayapal called Klain, who apparently believed her when she said her faction was strong enough to block the bill. Biden went to the Hill, talked about the bill, but he didn’t ask for the votes to pass it — and the rest of the White House didn’t apply much lobbying pressure either…

Klain’s decision had a bonus effect — pissing off crucial tie-breaking senator Joe Manchin, whose alleged support for “Build Back Better” had been advertised by the White House. Manchin soon held a press conference pointedly denying he’d ever signed off on the BBB’s framework. “It was very easy ask just vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill,” Manchin complained. But it hadn’t happened. Manchin also made it clear he was in no hurry to reach a deal on BBB— a stance that will hardly reassure the progressives who insist on BBB as the price of their votes for the bipartisan “hard” bill, but that moderate House Democrats, alarmed by the rejection of McAuliffe and the GOP;s Virginia sweep, may now find congenial.

Kaus wrote that on Tuesday, warning that there was now a nonzero chance that *neither* infrastructure bill would pass. Jayapal’s surrender seems to have averted that possibility, although the new progressive-friendly House reconciliation bill might prove so offensive to centrist Dems in the House that it can’t get 218 votes in that chamber, never mind passing the Senate. Which probably explains why, at last check, Pelosi wanted to vote on the reconciliation bill before they vote on the bipartisan bill:

If the House votes on the bipartisan bill first and passes it with progressive help, the reconciliation bill might go down. Centrist Dems would no longer have an incentive to support it, having already passed the bill they really care about. By voting on the reconciliation bill first, Pelosi’s going to squeeze those centrists to support the left’s agenda first — even though, per the results in Virginia and beyond, that’s suddenly a risky proposition politically. Imagine being a Dem from a purple district forced to take a difficult vote to appease the left knowing that even if the reconciliation bill passes the House it’s dead in the Senate.

How did these idiots end up in this position, where neither wing of the party is thrilled about the infrastructure package and might conceivably end up tanking the whole thing? If they had passed the bipartisan bill weeks ago, they would have secured a victory and possibly helped their candidates on election night this week. Reconciliation still would have been on the table — and if Dems like McAuliffe had pulled out tight races instead of losing them, that might have emboldened centrist Democrats in the House and Senate to proceed with a reconciliation bill. As it is, by waiting as long as they did and enabling a Republican rout, progressives have strengthened the centrists’ hand to say no to reconciliation. And if they do end up saying no, that’ll force progressives to contemplate an unconditional surrender in which they pass the bipartisan bill even after reconciliation is completely dead. Malpractice.