All day Thursday, I found myself torn about whether the House Progressive Caucus should accept a “framework” for a pared-down “Build Back Better” bill in exchange for its members’ votes for the ballyhooed bipartisan infrastructure bill, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi brought up for a vote again yesterday. Together, the two bills would provide an almost $3 trillion investment in our future. And while lots of important priorities got cut from the BBB “framework,” what remained was indeed what Pelosi termed “transformative.” Universal pre-kindergarten, investments in child care and elder care, health care funding, a half-billion in climate change mitigation programs, an unexpectedly progressive tax plan, and more. I always thought that in the end, progressives would accept the “framework” of the BBB, rather than demand a vote on the bill, in order to proceed with a vote on infrastructure.
It may be that at one point in this long process, they would have. But ever since Senator Joe Manchin, D–Fossil Fuel Industry, announced that he wanted the $3.5 trillion legislation pared back to about $1 trillion, and Senator Kyrsten Sinema, D–My Own Planet, decided she had problems with the bill’s tax provisions and, appallingly, its plan to let Medicare negotiate drug pricing with Big Pharma, progressives have been scrambling to figure out how to get the two Senate holdouts on board with something that would resemble the agenda President Joe Biden ran on.
And right up through Thursday, when House Democrats again delayed a vote on the infrastructure bill, they could not. The Big Two have been sociopathically stubborn, gaslighting progressives—and apparently, the president—rather than negotiating. Even though Biden announced on Thursday, before he left for a multi-stop trip to Europe, that an agreement on a BBB “framework” had been reached—which seemed to imply that Manchin and Sinema were on board—no such thing turned out to be true. Reporters followed the duo around the Capitol round the clock, and could never get either to say plainly that they supported the framework as Biden announced it.
Thus progressives had no choice but to reject a vote on the infrastructure bill until the Senate votes on the BBB legislation. All day long, cable news reporters went on about a “trust deficit,” as though it were a mysterious force of nature, or a problem between teenage girls. It’s real, and it’s valid, but it only works one way. Progressives, led by their caucus chair Pramila Jayapal, have negotiated, arduously and in good faith. They’ve accepted a bill that’s about half of the $3.5 trillion they wanted—which was itself a compromise from the $6 trillion bill first announced.
Meanwhile, Manchin and Sinema have flip-flopped on what they’ll support time and again. Even if they ultimately had said they’d support the bill as outlined—and ultimately, they wouldn’t even say that on Thursday—these two self-serving senators have proven capable of reneging on their word. Regretfully, I can fully imagine them saying they support the framework, and then voting down the bill when it ultimately came to the Senate floor. They’d find a “reason”—the legislation wasn’t exactly what they thought the framework meant, yadda yadda yadda. Can anyone doubt that? I can already imagine Sinema’s curtsy followed by a thumbs-down on the Senate floor.
First, I want to be clear about a process point: Some commentators on Thursday claimed Manchin and Sinema had already voted for the $3.5 trillion bill. That’s not true: Technically, they only voted to proceed to debate on the bill—a hurdle in a Senate where most debate is stifled by the filibuster. It felt like a big deal, and it was big, but it wasn’t a deal.
What’s been dastardly is that both Manchin and Sinema—who, by the way, disagree on a lot, making a deal even tougher—have consistently changed their tunes about what they’d accept, and have blindsided fellow Democrats with unexpected demands. Sinema came out against negotiating drug pricing—a Democratic campaign promise since they won the House in 2006—even though lowering drug prices was one of her promises to Arizonans in her successful 2018 campaign for Senate. Her opposition, in September, surprised some people—until they learned she’s gotten almost a half-million dollars from Big Pharma in 2021 alone.
Then she came out against any increase in corporate or individual tax rates, which again was an unknown, or not well-known, position; the sphinx of the Senate has been quiet about a lot of what she doesn’t like in the bill. There ensued a lot of negotiation—Sinema might back a wealth tax? A new billionaires’ tax? But Manchin scotched that one. “I don’t like it. I don’t like the connotation that we’re targeting different people,” he told reporters, as though the bill singled out Jews, or Italians, or right-handed people for higher taxes. (Tax rates “target” people of different incomes all the time, of course.)
In the end, the BBB framework includes, surprisingly, an extra 5 percent tax on individual income above $10 million, with 3 percent more above $25 million, and a 15 percent minimum tax on corporations with at least $1 billion in profits. But we still don’t know if Manchin and/or Sinema support those provisions.
Then Manchin had problems with the bill’s paid family leave provisions, which got scaled back from three months to one. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a passionate proponent of the legislation, sat down with him and patiently walked him through it. She told reporters they’d made some progress. But the West Virginia obstructionist announced on Wednesday he wouldn’t accept any paid leave provision at all, because he doesn’t think the policy should be accomplished through the reconciliation process in the first place. Well, you coulda said that a long time ago, Joe.
Manchin also threw sand in the gears of negotiations by styling himself a 1990s neoliberal, announcing that he wanted work requirements for families getting the child tax credit, as well as means-testing to limit it to struggling families. He resurrected hoary claims about “entitlements” discouraging work. “I don’t believe that we should turn our society into an entitlement society,” he said earlier this month. “I think we should still be a compassionate, rewarding society.” To his credit, Biden made clear he opposed work requirements, and Manchin seemed to drop that demand. But we don’t really know, because he hasn’t said whether he supports the framework.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. The Dysfunctional Duo are the ones who blocked a Thursday vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, not progressives.
This was a rare process misstep by Nancy Pelosi. I heard two main reasons for her trying to force a floor vote. The Surface Transportation Act had to be reauthorized by the end of the month, but it has been easily extended before—it truly has bipartisan support—and of course would be again. (And it was, Thursday night.) There was also talk that President Biden needed a win before his European trip, especially before the Glasgow climate summit. But ambitious climate policy is entirely in the Build Back Better bill. So I really don’t get the decision to force a vote on infrastructure, which resulted in a rare defeat for the speaker.
What happens next? People think it’s possible to have the text of the BBB legislation by next week, which would allow the bill to be voted on by the Senate—Senate Democrats plus Vice President Kamala Harris, that is, since Republicans are busy calling the bill “socialism” (though Senator Bernie Sanders remains unhappy with it) and sitting on their greedy hands. A vote next week would be great—if indeed the bill passes, which of course requires votes from both Manchin and Sinema. Democrats are optimistic about the outcome, and so I guess I am too. But I won’t be sure until I see their vote. Maybe Sinema will give us another dramatic curtsy—with a thumbs-up this time.