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5 reasons why this week’s political war is different from all others

In the Members’ Dining Room of the U.S. Capitol this morning, I asked this question of several former colleagues: “What’s going to happen with the bipartisan infrastructure bill today?”

The unanimous response: No one knows. Finally, Democrats and Republicans have found something they can agree on. 

How do we measure the short- and long-term effects of this week’s war in Washington? Grab your pencils and paper and follow along. Also, plenty of erasers. What we think is clear is bound to change — maybe by the end of the day. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last night: “It’s one hour at a time.”

What we are witnessing in the battle over infrastructure financing isn’t your run-of-the-mill legislative turbulence. It’s chaos in a conflagration in a maelstrom.

Here’s what makes this different. 

First, most political wars are binary: Republicans versus Democrats, House versus Senate, Congress versus the president. Not this. No, this is more like a political world war in which everyone is fighting different battles on different fields with varying strategic objectives.

Sure, for the moment it’s a battle between progressive and moderate Democrats. But Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) isn’t exactly like Switzerland, pledging neutrality and resisting intervention.

Second, this war is different from others because of the intense polarization of the country. It’s the push me/pull you of the electorate: Residential sorting patterns and gerrymandered districts have pushed constituents further left and right, and they are pulling their elected officials with them. Domestic consumption fortifies positions at the extremes. What Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) hears consistently in the moderate New Jersey suburbs is not what Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) hears in progressive Seattle.

Third, this isn’t just about moderates versus progressives in a tax and spend argument. This is further complicated by other factions holding out for more parochial interests. My successor in the House, Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.), is among several Democrats who have conditioned their votes on restoring federal income tax deductions for state and local taxes, which the Trump tax cuts capped at $10,000. Nothing is more enticing to a member of Congress than leverage. 

Fourth, the battle is not focused singularly on what’s written in legislation this week. It’s also about what’s written in a campaign television spot a year from now, nearing the climax of the midterm elections: the foreboding soundtrack from a John Carpenter “Halloween” film, the gray, ghoulish images, the haunting voiceover reminding us about the congressperson who voted to increase taxes (even if he or she did not).

Fifth, the battle is intractably complicated by big, aspirational ideas resting on razor-thin majorities. I remember President Obama chafing at criticism that he wasn’t as bold as President Johnson. His response was: I’ll be as bold as LBJ when you give me the 295-vote majority in the House and the 68-vote majority in the Senate that he had. Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) are confined to the narrowest of lanes, with limited maneuverability in whipping votes. 

So, what will happen? 

At some point (maybe today, next week or next month) Democrats must and will find a way to pass both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a larger reconciliation package. Democrats have a rough but achievable path to sustaining their majority in 2022. They need to turn out their base and attract swing voters. Disappointing one or the other almost guarantees the coming of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. That explains why McCarthy has been fervently whipping his conference to vote against the bipartisan bill already passed by the Senate. Who cares about building bridges when you can pave a path to the speaker’s chair?

I’m putting my money on Pelosi. She may not clinch it today or next week. But she has a history of skating on thin ice through murky fog while unlocking a legislative Rubik’s Cube.

Still, Democrats need to be careful. When you play brinksmanship, the winner is usually the one who can see what’s over the brink. Progressives may have the votes to bring down the bipartisan infrastructure bill. But if they do, it will also guarantee the defeat of the reconciliation bill (with their own priorities) and increase the risk of losing the majority and even the next presidential election.

What’s progressive about that? 

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags Barack Obama bipartisan infrastructure framework budget reconciliation Chuck Schumer Democratic Party infrastructure Josh Gottheimer Kevin McCarthy Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal Steve Israel US Congress

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