Tensions grow between liberals and centrists on infrastructure
Centrist Democrats led by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and progressives led by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are at loggerheads over how to move President Biden’s ambitious infrastructure agenda.
Manchin fired a shot at liberal colleagues Wednesday when he declared he will not commit to supporting a reconciliation package that progressives want to pack with their ambitious priorities.
Asked if he would commit to support a reconciliation package, Manchin said: “I’m not committing to that.”
“I’m not committing to anything,” he said. “I want to look at everything.”
“I want to make sure that we make good decisions, sound decisions based on facts,” he added, indicating that he wants to review the details of any legislative proposal before saying how he will vote.
Manchin, in an op-ed earlier this year, urged his Democratic colleagues not to rely on the special budget process to pass major bills with only Democratic votes.
Progressive Democrats in turn warned Wednesday that Manchin’s refusal to commit ahead of time to a reconciliation bill could scuttle any effort to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill Manchin has been working on with a group of four other moderate Democrats and five moderate Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) bowed to mounting pressure from progressives in his caucus by meeting with the 11 Democratic members of the Budget Committee on Wednesday afternoon to set a plan for moving forward with the budget reconciliation process in July. That process will allow them to pass a massive infrastructure bill with only 50 Democratic votes if Vice President Harris casts the tie-breaking votes.
But for now, there’s no guarantee that all 50 members of the Democratic caucus will support a reconciliation bill, and growing tensions between moderates and liberals are adding to the sense of uncertainty.
“There was universal agreement we have a lot of things we have to do to help the American people and we have to have unity to do it. Everyone has to listen to one another,” Schumer said after the meeting.
Schumer has said the Senate will vote on a budget resolution in July, but he hasn’t yet clarified whether the reconciliation package that would include the meat of Biden’s agenda will also pass next month or wait until the fall.
The five centrist Democrats who unveiled their framework last week flexed their own political muscle Wednesday afternoon by announcing that 10 new senators had signed on to their proposal — five new Republicans, four new Democrats and Sen. Angus King (Maine), an independent who caucuses with Democrats.
“We support this bipartisan framework that provides an historic investment in our nation’s core infrastructure needs without raising taxes. We look forward to working with our Republican and Democratic colleagues to develop legislation based on this framework to address America’s critical infrastructure challenges,” the group of 20 senators said in a joint statement.
Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) announced Wednesday they would join Manchin, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and other moderates in supporting the proposal, which is focused on hard infrastructure and repurposes unspent COVID-19 relief money.
But even if 10 Republicans vote for a scaled-down bipartisan infrastructure bill, it’s not guaranteed to pass because as many as a half-dozen progressive Democrats are threatening to oppose it for leaving out many of Biden’s priorities and for not raising taxes on the wealthy.
Informed that Manchin won’t commit in advance to supporting a reconciliation package, one Democratic senator who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations said, “then I don’t know there are the votes” for a bipartisan package.
But centrist Democrats in the bipartisan group of 10 say if the bipartisan package fails, then Biden may not get any of his infrastructure agenda passed through the Congress.
“You kill it, what do you get? You end up with nothing,” said Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), one of the five centrist Democrats who backed a bipartisan $974 billion, five-year infrastructure bill last week.
Tester said he disagrees with fellow Democrats who want to kill the bipartisan proposal in hopes of getting all 50 members of the Senate Democratic Conference to support a much larger infrastructure and social spending package that could pass under budget reconciliation and bypass a GOP filibuster.
“No, I think you end up with nothing,” he said.
Sanders, the Senate Budget Committee chairman, said Monday that he will not vote for the bipartisan plan because it doesn’t meet what he says is the need for a “massive” investment and because it doesn’t include “progressive” ways to pay for it.
Other progressives, including Warren and Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) say they will only vote for the bipartisan infrastructure proposal — which still needs to be fully fleshed out — if they have an “ironclad” guarantee on what the reconciliation package will look like and whether it will have enough Democratic votes to pass.
Democratic centrists say this is an unrealistic demand.
“Sadly, I think they’re trying to kill the bipartisan deal, but you can’t do anything about that,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).
Manchin later told reporters that he would never demand such an ironclad commitment from colleagues on a bill that hasn’t even been outlined or drafted.
“I would never ask any of my colleagues for an iron-clad commitment … and I expect the same from them,” he said.
“No, I don’t think that’s fair,” he added.
Manchin’s refusal to commit to voting for a reconciliation package that includes bold climate-related provisions and social spending initiatives now puts at least a half-dozen Democratic votes for a bipartisan infrastructure package in jeopardy.
“My belief is that the bridges and roads and other traditional infrastructure … have to be simultaneously bolted to the climate provisions and the family-planning provisions that match the promises … that we’ve made,” Markey said Wednesday afternoon. “I need a guarantee that the climate provisions that are needed are not left behind.”
Some Democrats are now expressing frustration over their belief that Biden has empowered Manchin by repeatedly expressing his preference for a bipartisan infrastructure package, even though many Democrats don’t think Republicans are willing to negotiate in good faith.
“This wouldn’t be happening without Biden’s blessing,” said the Democratic senator who requested anonymity to discuss internal caucus dynamics. “Right before his trip [to Europe], he made a whole bunch of calls around saying that was his preference.”
But the desire for passing a bipartisan infrastructure package is also shared by other members of the Democratic caucus.
“At the top of my list is that we work as hard as we can to figure out a way to make this bipartisan, whether it’s all of it or part of it,” said Kelly, who was elected in a traditionally Republican state last year and is up for reelection in 2022.
Jordain Carney contributed.