Progressives dig in for fall fight with centrists

Progressives are digging in for a fall fight with centrists following a House budget deal to advance the party’s top social priorities, with some on the left threatening to vote against the bipartisan infrastructure bill if it comes to the floor before the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package.

Democrats close to House liberals believe Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the Congressional Progressive Caucus leader, have so far jointly handled the intraparty standoff in a way that favors the left flank over moderates.

Now, leading progressives are signaling they plan to use their collective voting power to keep the pressure on leadership and their centrist colleagues to ensure the sweeping social benefits package passes Congress and becomes law. 

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), a key member of the so-called squad of liberal lawmakers of color, warned that she would not vote for the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill by a new Sept. 27 deadline that Pelosi promised to moderates if that comes ahead of the $3.5 trillion package. Both measures have President Biden’s full backing.

“Let’s move them together,” Tlaib told reporters on Tuesday.

“It’s very obvious that I’m not going to do a [Sept. 27] deadline” without a reconciliation package, she added. “I want to work on what’s going to go into reconciliation. That’s a priority for me. They can put all these deadlines all they want, but they’ve got to bring all of us along.”

Another prominent House progressive, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), made clear she would vote against the infrastructure bill if the larger package isn’t ready by the late September deadline.

“We’ve been very clear and very consistent from the beginning that the only way that this infrastructure plan has a chance is if reconciliation comes through,” Ocasio-Cortez said. 

The firmness of that position was shared among other Democrats who have been adamant about passing legislation that would massively expand the social safety net.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) used the term “fiasco” to describe the tense scene on Capitol Hill this week.

“I think it’s important for people to remember that the strategy of simultaneously moving these two pieces of legislation is one that the president himself, [Senate Majority Leader Charles] Schumer [D-N.Y.] and the Speaker, with 100-plus members of Congress on the Democratic side, believe is the right strategy,” she said.

Liberals have long argued that tackling social spending before infrastructure is crucial to help scale back systematic inequality on multiple fronts. But a vocal group of 10 centrists, led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), publicly called for holding an immediate vote on infrastructure before adopting the budget resolution for the $3.5 trillion package.

Pelosi ultimately struck a deal with the moderates — which she later downplayed as a “clarification” —  by saying the House would vote to send the infrastructure bill to Biden’s desk before October.

She noted that some surface transportation programs are set to expire on Sept. 30, creating the impetus for the House to pass an infrastructure bill that invests in roads, bridges and other transit programs.

“So, we’re talking about a couple of days earlier,” Pelosi said on Wednesday.

House lawmakers are slated to return from their summer recess on Sept. 20.

Progressives have characterized Pelosi’s pledge as nothing more than a symbolic placation that has little practical impact given that the House was already poised to act on renewing transportation programs next month.

“I think this was meaningless,” Omar said of the agreement Pelosi reached with centrists. “It’s not binding. There’s no leverage that I believe was gained by them. I actually think they lost leverage by doing this little fiasco.” 

One source close to senior leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) said Pelosi’s handling of the days of stalling and threats by the so-called mod squad sent a signal that a massive spending bill would end up passing without any major cuts. Progressives have outlined a number of policies around the environment, child care and education that they consider to be non-negotiable.

“If anyone can negotiate with the 222 Democrats and get the best agenda through, it’s Pelosi,” said the source, who is in regular contact with top progressive lawmakers.

In addition to the Speaker, Jayapal “also knows how to negotiate as well as anyone ever,” the source added. “Between the two of them, I’m not so worried about the centrists.”

On Tuesday afternoon, after the deal was announced, Jayapal circulated a statement to reiterate the CPC’s demands. The wording was considered a public show of force by those on the left, who are larger in numbers and less scattered among varying groups than the centrists, who range from members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus to the New Democrat Coalition and the Blue Dog Coalition.

“As our members have made clear for three months, the two are integrally tied together, and we will only vote for the infrastructure bill after passing the reconciliation bill,” Jayapal said.

The group of Democratic moderates, meanwhile, described the agreement with Pelosi as a victory in the push to separate the bipartisan infrastructure bill from the budget package.

“With roads and bridges crumbling across our nation, this agreement does what we set out to do: secure a standalone vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, send it to the president’s desk, and then separately consider the reconciliation package,” the centrists said in a joint statement.

Another key promise that centrists secured from Pelosi is that the House reconciliation package will need to pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian, meaning it can’t include controversial measures — such as a provision to grant legal status to certain immigrants — that would later be axed in the Senate.

That approach will prevent vulnerable moderates from having to take politically risky votes on issues that ultimately won’t become law anyway, avoiding a repeat of the sweeping climate bill known as “cap and trade” before the 2010 midterms that failed in the Senate but hurt centrist House Democrats at the ballot box.

“Some of us were here in 2010, when we took certain votes, and the House took certain votes, and the Senate didn’t take those votes,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), one of the 10 moderates. “So to us, that’s important that we are working in parallel with the Senate.”

Anger toward moderates from progressives had been simmering for months but neared a boiling point over the weekend. Pelosi’s move on Tuesday was seen as an initial remedy to those tensions.

“It is new for us to not get rolled,” said Max Berger, a progressive Democratic operative. “Especially when there’s a choice between ‘Do we roll the progressives, or do we roll the corporate Dems?’”

“It should really be seen as a huge victory for the organizing that progressives have done in Congress to get to a point where leadership is so on our side and willing to make sure that our needs and interests are taken into account,” he said.

But even progressives acknowledge there’s still a long road ahead in this fight.

In what would be a worst-case scenario for the left, some centrists have suggested that enough Republicans could offset potential progressive defections on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. GOP sources recently indicated that up to 40 Republicans are prepared to vote for the legislation, which the Senate passed 69-30.

But House GOP leaders, who are more closely allied with former President Trump and have their eyes on retaking the majority next year, are echoing Trump’s opposition to the infrastructure bill. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has also said she would support primary challenges against any Republicans who back the legislation.

Ocasio-Cortez expressed skepticism that Republicans would be able to deliver enough votes to cancel out a possible lack of progressive support. 

“I mean, they can’t even get a critical mass of people to say that the election was legitimate. So how many are they going to get to support a president that they can’t even acknowledge as legitimate in the first place? We’ll see on that, but I doubt it,” she said.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez budget reconciliation package Donald Trump Ilhan Omar Infrastructure Joe Biden Josh Gottheimer Marjorie Taylor Greene Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal Rashida Tlaib social spending

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