Lack of trust mangles Democratic efforts to reach deal

As Democratic leaders race to advance President Biden’s agenda this week, the highest barrier to a quick infrastructure victory is not one of policy or politics, but distrust.

House liberals have blocked a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, not to protest the substance, but because they simply don’t have faith in party moderates to keep their commitment to a larger “family” benefits bill if it’s left hanging in limbo after infrastructure moves to Biden’s desk. 

The progressive critics are targeting two moderates in particular — Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — who have emerged as the face of centrist opposition to key parts of Biden’s spending plan. 

“Sinema and Manchin have proven that they can’t be trusted,” Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), said bluntly. 

Liberals are accusing the centrist pair of moving the goal posts as the talks have evolved. Manchin, for example, has endorsed the notion of hiking taxes on the wealthy, but is now pushing back against a newly proposed billionaire tax. 

The flipflopping has infuriated Senate liberals like Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who lamented Wednesday that every proposed revenue stream “seems to be destroyed” by the moderate holdouts. And it hasn’t been overlooked in the House, where progressives are pointing to Manchin’s revolving position on tax hikes as further reason for their growing distrust. 

“Manchin and Sinema keep raising different issues late in the game, which they could have done a while back,” Gomez said. “It erodes people’s trust that they’re actually serious about getting anything done.”

Gomez is hardly alone. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) also took aim at the centrist senators, calling them out of step with voters who back Biden’s agenda. 

“Manchin and Sinema aren’t using common sense and moving in the direction of the country,” said Bowman. “They don’t seem to be moving with the country; they seem to be moving with their own special interests.”

Bowman noted that the Senate had approved a $3.5 trillion budget bill — the same figure favored by Biden — only to have Manchin and Sinema oppose new spending at that level. 

“So how can we trust them?” Bowman asked.

The tensions have arrived at an inopportune time for Democratic leaders, who are racing to bridge the internal divisions surrounding Biden’s agenda in the next 24 hours. 

Moderate lawmakers, backed by leadership, want an immediate vote on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill — a centerpiece of Biden’s economic plan — that would lend the president a big win before he heads overseas Thursday for a high-stakes global climate summit. Yet House liberals are threatening to sink that proposal if it hits the floor before there’s a solid, detailed agreement — if not a vote — on the larger but less popular social benefits package, the second piece of Biden’s domestic agenda. 

The impasse has heightened the likelihood that Biden will be forced to head to Europe on Thursday without an infrastructure win under his belt. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has sought to break the deadlock by urging those progressives to accept a “framework” deal on the social spending legislation in exchange for their infrastructure votes. In a letter to Democrats on Wednesday, Pelosi acknowledged the erosion of trust between the groups, but called on all sides to have “trust and confidence in an agreement for the Build Back Better Act” for the sake of enacting the infrastructure bill more quickly. 

“[W]e are close to agreement on the priorities and the topline of the legislation, which can and must pass the House and Senate,” Pelosi wrote.

The trouble is the relationship between the feuding factions has grown so toxic over the course of the months-long debate that liberals say they’ve lost all faith in the centrists to honor their commitments. And they’re digging in despite Pelosi’s appeals. 

“We need confirmed text,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), laying out her demands before she agrees to vote for the roads, bridges and waterways bill.

To hone their strategy, roughly 40 members of the Progressive Caucus — including Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who heads the group — met Tuesday night, Gomez said, and came away committed to holding the line on infrastructure to assure they get the best hand out of the social benefits package.

“The progressives have been clear: Let’s get an agreement done, and let’s pass out the bills together,” he said. 

Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), a senior member of CPC’s whip team, said she believes the bottleneck lies with Sinema. Because of the Arizona senator’s relative public silence in these talks, Escobar said she’s not sure Sinema even wants a reconciliation package to get to the president’s desk.

“I believe Sen. Manchin is negotiating in good faith, only because I see his comments in the press. Sen. Sinema’s positions are not publicly known so it’s hard for me to judge,” Escobar said.

“I don’t know that reconciliation is necessarily a priority for Sen. Sinema only because I’ve not heard a resounding message from her that she wants to see all of this happen,” Escobar added. Manchin is “actually explaining why he is for certain things, why he’s against certain things. If I were a negotiator, that would help.”

Some progressives singled out one figure they said could break the logjam and win their vote on infrastructure: Biden. 

“There is mistrust when it comes to the Senate. There is trust when it comes to the White House. So if Biden says, ‘X, Y and Z is gonna happen, you have my word,’ I trust him at his word,” Bowman said. “So his word, plus a solid framework could get things moving on the House side without the actual bill — potentially.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has not ruled out an infrastructure vote on Thursday, and suggested Biden could visit the Capitol to give Democrats a pep talk surrounding the vote. And Pelosi has scheduled a Thursday House Rules Committee hearing on the social spending package, despite the fact that large parts of the bill remain unresolved. 

Not every liberal is threatening to vote down the infrastructure package. 

Rep. Norma Torres, one of Pelosi’s fellow California Democrats, said she and many other progressives will vote “yes” on infrastructure whenever the Speaker brings it to the floor. She argued that better roads and bridges would help alleviate supply chain disruptions at a pair of southern California ports.

“I will vote for an infrastructure bill that can get us the infrastructure dollars that we need in order to improve our highways, our bridges. Look what’s happening at the Port of L.A. and Long Beach. I mean, do you think that unloading those ships is enough? I say no, because those trucks are going to be on those freeways headed to my community,” Torres told The Hill. 

“We need money to make road improvements, so I am a yes on an infrastructure bill.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Jimmy Gomez Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi Norma Torres Pramila Jayapal Steny Hoyer Veronica Escobar
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