Centrist Dems broke a promise on infrastructure. They should not get their "bipartisan" victory now

Centrists reneged on a deal to pass Biden's agenda. Progressives should adopt an "F around and find out" response

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published September 29, 2021 1:00PM (EDT)

Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

When the two-track plan to pass President Joe Biden's ambitious jobs and infrastructure program first emerged, many progressives understandably thought it was a trap. To summarize an impossibly complex situation: Earlier this year, Biden proposed a giant bill that would contain huge chunks of the progressive agenda. Some of it was GOP-friendly, such as building roads and bridges. Some of it — childcare funding, policies to reduce climate change, and health care expansions — was not. But centrist Democrats refused to vote for the entire bill through budget reconciliation, which only requires a party-line vote, because they wanted to say they were "bipartisan." So a scheme was concocted: Put the GOP-friendly items in one bill that could pass on a bipartisan basis, and put the rest in a bill to pass on a party-line vote. 

So Democrats concocted an intra-party deal: Progressives vote for the moderate-pleasing bill, and, in exchange, moderates vote for the progressive bill. 

"The moderates couldn't pass a bipartisan bill without the more progressive wing of our caucus," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told Politico in August. "And the progressives couldn't get a big, bold bill without the moderates."

Some progressives, however, smelled a rat. They feared it was scheme concocted by Republicans and centrist Democrats to carve out the most important and most popular parts of Biden's agenda and put it in a separate bill that would be easier to drown in a bathtub. But no, progressives were told, there was no intention of doing any of that! As assurance, progressives were promised that both bills would be passed at once, so no one would be tempted to renege on the deal. 

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Turns out progressives were right to be paranoid. Centrist Democrats, led by — who else? — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are, to be blunt, reneging on their end of the bargain. They are demanding that the skinnier bipartisan bill be passed first. While they keep claiming they'll vote for the more ambitious bill — after slicing and dicing it to be less ambitious, naturally — there is no reason to believe them. They are, after all, people who break promises. The wise thing to assume at this point is that they are trying to trick progressives into holding up their end of the bargain, at which point, centrists will drop any pretense of playing ball and abandon the most important parts of the Biden agenda. 

"During a private meeting with the president, Sinema made clear she's still not on board with the party's $3.5 trillion social spending plan and is hesitant to engage on some specifics until the bipartisan infrastructure package passes the House, according to a person who spoke with her," Politico reported Wednesday morning, confirming not just that Sinema is a snake in the grass, but also not half as clever at hiding her schemes as she thinks she is. 

As a business lobbyist admitted to Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, "their optimal scenario is that the infrastructure bill passes and the reconciliation bill goes down to defeat entirely."

Progressives shouldn't let them get away with this. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has already delayed a vote on the skinny bill from Monday to Thursday, clearly in hopes that the centrists will stop reneging and the deal can be salvaged. But if centrists haven't backed down from their unsubtle efforts to derail the Biden agena, then it's time for progressives to make good on the "F around and find out" threat. Progressives should refuse to vote for the skinny bill, and stand by their demand that it's both bills or none. 

There are many Democrats who are panicked at this proposition, fearing that the slim infrastructure bill is better than passing nothing. But while that is a legitimate concern, it pales next to the larger problem of rewarding saboteurs and letting the GOP continue to use a handful of centrists as puppets to control the Democratic agenda. It really comes down to the very basic principles of contracts: If bad faith actors are allowed to renege on deals, they will continue to use false promises to entrap the good faith actors time and again. 

The good news, as Joan Walsh of The Nation pointed out on MSNBC on Tuesday night, is the presence of "a couple dozen progressives who are saying they will not vote for this infrastructure bill if it's not tied in some way to a future, larger, more generous, robust, necessary reconciliation bill." 

The progressive caucus reiterated their intention publicly to vote down the bipartisan bill unless centrists hold up their end of the bargain. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont backed them up on Twitter, noting that "If the bipartisan infrastructure bill is passed on its own on Thursday, this will be in violation of an agreement," and "it will end all leverage that we have to pass a major reconciliation bill."

As Sanders noted, this isn't just about keeping everyone in the Democratic caucus honest, but about substantive political concerns. The skinny bill makes "no serious effort to address the long-neglected crises facing the working families of our country, the children, the elderly, the sick and the poor," he argued, adding that it also doesn't address "the existential threat to our country and planet with regard to climate change."

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From a moral point of view, the last point is by far the most important. As former Barack Obama aide Dan Pfeiffer noted in his most recent newsletter, the progressive bill "is our best, and perhaps last, chance to do something meaningful about climate change before it is too late." As another former Obama aide, John Podesta, warned the Democratic caucus in a memo, "There is no time. There is no next time." 

Plus, if they can force centrists to pony up the promised votes, progressives may be saving moderate Democrats from themselves. Rep. Katie Porter of California made this point eloquently in an interview with the Washington Post, noting that the items in the bigger bill "will immediately begin to improve the lives of Americans and will begin to immediately improve our economy." Basically, all good stuff that Democrats can campaign on for the midterms. The smaller bill, on the other hand, is mostly focused on long-range infrastructure projects that will not be noticed by the voters that Democrats need to win in 2022. 

Voting down the bill risks, of course, getting nothing done at all. That would be a shame. But it is better than the alternative, which is rewarding these childish and lobbyist-driven antics by a handful of Democrats. Appealing to their higher angels — or to the fate of the planet — clearly isn't moving people like Manchin and Sinema, who care more about being flattered by right wing fundraisers than they do the future of humanity. The moral of 2021, in many ways, is that some folks simply can't do the right thing unless they face consequences for doing the wrong thing. Threats only work if you make good on them. Progressives have to show they're serious, or this small minority of bad actors will never lose control of the Democratic agenda. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Bernie Sanders Chuck Schumer Commentary Joe Biden Joe Manchin Katie Porter Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi