CBC's pivotal role on infrastructure underscores caucus's growing stature

CBC's pivotal role on infrastructure underscores caucus's growing stature
© Greg Nash

Top members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) played leading roles in brokering the deal that allowed the bipartisan infrastructure bill to emerge from House gridlock and reach President BidenJoe BidenUS threatens sweeping export controls against Russian industries Headaches intensify for Democrats in Florida US orders families of embassy staff in Ukraine to leave country MORE’s desk.

It all underscores the CBC’s growing power in a House only narrowly held by Democrats, as well as the tight ties between the group, the president and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse has the power to subpoena its members — but does it have the will? Man who threatened to kill Ocasio-Cortez, Pelosi pleads guilty to federal charges The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems look to repackage BBB into salvageable bill MORE (D-Calif.).

The infrastructure bill’s passage late Friday night was a big win for Biden — who desperately needed it — and it was also a victory for the party at large, which had been on a bit of a losing streak that culminated in the GOP’s victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial race.

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Members of the caucus said the effort showed how the goals for Biden and the CBC have been shared since the Democratic presidential primary

“Black people … are one of the determining factors for Joe Biden to be in the White House. We came out, we showed up, we were supportive and we pulled him over the finish line,” Rep. Brenda LawrenceBrenda Lulenar LawrenceMichigan Republicans sue over US House district lines House Democrats inquire about possible census undercount in Detroit, other communities Hillicon Valley — YouTube takes some heat MORE (D-Mich.), the CBC’s second vice chair, told The Hill in an interview.

“Do we have a vested interest in the agenda that we campaigned for, that we fought for with Joe Biden? Absolutely,” Lawrence said.

The deal, orchestrated by House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and CBC Chair Joyce BeattyJoyce Birdson BeattyFury over voting rights fight turns personal on Capitol Hill  Pelosi suggests filibuster supporters 'dishonor' MLK's legacy on voting rights Black Democrats hammer Manchin for backing filibuster on voting rights MORE (D-Ohio), saw the House pass both the infrastructure bill and the rule governing debate on Biden’s Build Back Better climate and social spending package, which allowed the White House to also claim progress on that measure.

Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, told The Hill that the CBC helped other groups reach a compromise that benefited Biden and the wider party.

“It’s time for us to get beyond that comfort zone that we have and give up some of our conflicts in order to find common ground,” Clyburn said, reflecting on the day.

Friday was a busy one for the majority whip, who is responsible for counting votes for House Democrats. Clyburn met with House moderates at 8 a.m. before pivoting to meet with the entire CBC at 9 a.m.

“All of this marinated during the day,” he said.

Clyburn’s legwork eventually led him, Beatty and other senior CBC members to take their novel plan to vote on the infrastructure bill and the rule for the other package to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that afternoon.

The group made it clear they did not think Democrats could return home to their districts without voting on the infrastructure bill.

“We contacted Nancy Pelosi and said we have too much to lose,” said Lawrence. “We need this bill passed, and we are going to come to the table and figure this out.”

The meeting resulted in a breakthrough. “We’re going to go and vote on the bipartisan infrastructure [bill], and we’re going to vote then on the rule,” Beatty announced at the time.

The plan was met with immediate pushback from progressives opposed to decoupling the bills. At one point, Beatty waited longer than an hour outside a private meeting held by the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) on Friday evening before she was let in.

Speaking with reporters in the hallway at the time, Beatty, whose caucus has overlap in membership with the CPC, stressed that she wasn’t taking sides in the stalemate and was there to “listen” to her colleagues and figure out a path forward on the stalled legislation.

When she emerged from the meeting hours later, Beatty was hopeful about the progress made, saying then that Democrats were on track to finally land “the plane.”

Hours later, after a flurry of negotiations and statements from centrists committing to back the larger social spending and climate bill, Democrats and Biden had a major victory.

Democratic strategist Joel Payne said he thinks there was “strategic political advantage” to having someone with Beatty’s temperament help lead negotiations amid raised tensions between the warring factions on Friday.

“Chairwoman Beatty does not chase cameras. Without naming names, there have been other CBC chairs who are more bombastic. … That’s certainly not the reputation of Congresswoman Beatty,” said Payne, who previously served under former Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Connected Commerce Council - Biden faces reporters as his agenda teeters Biden hits one-year mark in dire straits 'All or nothing' won't bolster American democracy: Reform the filibuster and Electoral Count Act MORE (D-Nev.) and Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeSenate candidate Gary Chambers discusses his opposition to criminalizing marijuana Treasury rolls out quarters featuring Maya Angelou, first Black woman on the coin A presidential candidate pledge can right the wrongs of an infamous day MORE (D-Calif.).

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The goals of the CBC and the Biden administration are intertwined, and the CBC sees bolstering Biden as a means of strengthening itself and advancing shared priorities

Lawrence said the caucus is “determined to let America know that we are here. We have a vested interest in the success of this country.”

The caucus, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary and has more members than ever before, has a close working relationship with the administration, which includes three former CBC members in Vice President Harris, senior adviser Cedric RichmondCedric RichmondBiden should seek some ideological diversity Biden says 'consumer spending has recovered' to pre-pandemic levels Build Back Better is a 21st century New Deal MORE and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia FudgeMarcia FudgeThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks Buttigieg has high name recognition, favorability rating in Biden Cabinet: survey Biden, top officials spread out to promote infrastructure package MORE.

And Biden campaigned on broad and ambitious promises to Black Americans, many of which are tied into the spending bills.

All the same, there have also been disappointments for the CBC when it comes to Biden, who has failed to bend his party to pass such priorities as police reform and voting rights. Biden has also not turned up the pressure on centrist senators such as Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinVoting rights failed in the Senate — where do we go from here? Biden: A good coach knows when to change up the team The Memo: Biden looks for way to win back deflated Black voters MORE (D) of West Virginia to end the filibuster.

Fudge said she wasn’t surprised at how active a role the CBC took in getting Biden’s infrastructure bill through the House.

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“They’re doing exactly what I would expect it to do, to be leaders,” Fudge told The Hill. 

“It is probably the caucus that has the most seniority, the most experienced [one], and so it is my expectation that they would lead. So it didn’t surprise me at all. I’m very, very happy to say that they did, and they moved a lot of things that hadn’t been able to move prior to their involvement.”

Friday’s passage also underscored the partnership between the CBC and Pelosi, one that Lawrence described as “strong.”

“I have never experienced a time where Nancy Pelosi did not listen or respect the members of the Black Caucus,” Lawrence said.

Payne said he thinks the relationship between the two has “grown in importance” over the years, including in the current Congress, where Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in the House.

“The Speaker has a much thinner majority now than she had when she was Speaker in the past. Literally every vote counts,” he said. “And there are some of those votes in the CBC that are part of that coalition that she needs to protect, and that she needs to lock down.”