The Progressive Pieces of the Budget Reconciliation Bill Are Quickly Disappearing

Democratic leaders are moving to gut the parts of the budget reconciliation bill that would aid workers and fight climate change. House progressives like Pramila Jayapal shouldn’t vote for an empty husk of a bill.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, Congressional Progressive Caucus chair, speaks during a House Progressive Caucus news conference in Washington, DC, on October 19, 2021. (Samuel Corum / CNP / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Over the past few days, Democrats dropped a pair of brutal news dumps indicating they intend to fully gut many of the progressive elements in president Joe Biden’s health care, climate, and anti-poverty reconciliation spending bill.

Now, it’s up to progressive lawmakers to ensure the final Biden agenda bill doesn’t end up a hollowed-out shell that won’t meaningfully help anyone.

Late on Friday, Politico reported that “congressional Democrats are watering down — and may entirely drop — a plan to have the government directly negotiate some Medicare drug prices in order to help clinch a deal on their sweeping social spending package.”

Yes, you read that right: In order to secure a deal with their own pharma-bankrolled party members, Democratic leaders are now insisting they need to water down or kill the drug pricing provisions that survey data show voters most want, and that the party has been promising those voters for fifteen years.

Politico further reported on Saturday that Democrats may also axe their plan to add dental, hearing, and vision benefits to Medicare, and may fully eliminate their already watered-down proposal to guarantee US workers have paid family and medical leave. The news follows reports that the Biden White House is ready to remove its clean electricity program from the reconciliation package in order to appease Democrats’ coal-baron senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

None of these developments should come as a surprise — thanks to all the leeway progressives have provided to their conservative Democratic colleagues and their corporate masters.

Yes, progressives in the House recently stood firm against holding a vote on the lobbyist-sculpted bipartisan Senate infrastructure deal, a maneuver that kept the broader Biden agenda bill alive. But it was only a narrow victory, in part because progressives have steadfastly refused to make specific, public demands about what must be in the broader reconciliation bill to secure their votes — giving corporate Democrats all the space they’ve needed to gut the legislation.

And when you look at the demands that progressives have made more quietly in press releases, it’s clear that party leaders believe they are not at the table but are instead on the menu.

The Husk Point

In August, Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) leaders said they would not vote for the bipartisan infrastructure deal “until the Senate adopted a robust reconciliation package.”

As we noted at the time, progressives did not define what they considered “robust” to mean.

“This is a problem because while words like ‘lower’ and ‘comprehensive’ and ‘expanded’ and ‘robust’ sound nice, they are also fungible,” we noted. “And fungibility is how seemingly good legislation can get watered down to nothing.”

We subsequently warned that progressives’ failure to make specific demands

has created the political space for corporate Democrats to try to whittle down the bill to barely anything at all. If that effort is successful, it would force progressives to choose between voting for an empty husk of a bill that is at least called “reconciliation,” or risk getting nothing at all. Corporate Democrats would be betting that under enough pressure, progressives will eventually choose the husk and calculate that they’d be able to sell it to voters back home as a spectacular victory.

Unfortunately, we are now nearing that husk point, and progressives will have to decide whether they want the Biden agenda bill to mean something, or if they’ll just go along for the ride, like they did earlier this year when Democrats axed their $15 national minimum wage as part of Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill. The CPC did lay out some demands for the reconciliation bill in April, but what we’ve seen in public has been vague.

Last month, for instance, the Washington Post described the “five planks of the CPC’s economic priorities — which are climate, housing, expanding health-care access, lowering drug prices and immigration.”

The CPC whip, representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, similarly said in July: “We’ve said, you know, we’ve got the five priorities — investing in the care economy, addressing the climate crisis, obviously addressing things like immigration and expanding health care so that more people are covered.”

None of those statements tells anyone a whole lot. And when you drill into the actual details of the CPC’s economic priorities, as noted in caucus materials, and compare it to the news coming out of Washington, their promised agenda appears to be very much on the chopping block.

Nevertheless, last week, Jayapal heaped praise on Biden after a recent White House meeting. “The president is the inspirer, he is the closer, he is the convincer, the mediator in chief,” she said, adding, “He really is doing a phenomenal job.”

While corporate Democrats have successfully whittled the reconciliation bill down from a top-line number of $6 trillion down to $4 trillion, then to $3.5 trillion, and all the way down to $2 trillion, Jayapal has remained confident that her caucus’ priorities would make it into the final reconciliation bill. Just a few days ago, Jayapal told NPR she was “really proud that our five priorities are largely going to stay in here.”

The Five Priorities

Let’s look at how the CPC’s five priorities are actually faring.

The Washington Post reported Saturday that Biden’s “$300 billion housing plan . . . could shrink to as little as $100 billion in the final version of the legislation.” The Post noted that “Biden’s proposed $40 billion to repair public housing — long maligned as a symbol of government mismanagement — may be vulnerable to downsizing in negotiations.” The CPC had asked for “$70 billion to address the public housing repair backlog.”

The CPC demanded “$450 billion in Medicaid home and community-based services.” While the bill will likely include some spending for eldercare, the American Prospect reports it will likely be “less than the $250 billion seen as the absolute minimum to meet the twin goals of expanding affordable access and improving pay and conditions for workers.”

CPC’s list of demands included making “access to child care a universal benefit.” But as Matt Bruenig of People’s Policy Project points out, the subsidies in Democrats’ proposed child care program are means-tested, creating what’s known as a benefits cliff. Under the current proposal, he writes, “in years 1, 2, and 3 of the program, children are only eligible if their parents have incomes that are at or below 100 percent, 115 percent, and 130 percent of the state median income respectively.”

The upshot, according to Bruenig, is that “there will be many dual-earning couples who cannot afford childcare if both of them continue to work but could afford childcare if one of them quit their job and thereby brought their family income below the eligibility cutoff.” This is not how you design a universal program.

On climate, the CPC demanded a “strong national clean energy standard” that would “create millions of clean jobs in the renewable energy sector to help meet emissions reductions through binding, enforceable federal clean-energy standards.” To meet these goals, Democrats proposed a $150 billion Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) that would push electric utilities to transition to renewable energy sources.

Manchin has demanded that Democrats cut the CEPP entirely from their bill. The Wolf of West Virginia has a massive conflict of interest here — his family’s coal brokerage sells dirty waste coal to a Mountain State power plant — but Democrats seem to be willing to go along with his demand, anyway. A final bill could end up losing the CEPP and spending just $300 billion over ten years to fight the climate crisis, as compared to more than $8 trillion for the regular Pentagon budget over the same time period.

Progressive lawmakers seem resigned to losing their clean energy program, with many of them signing onto a new letter to Biden saying that

if the package does not contain a strong CEPP, we will need your unwavering support for significant additional investments in climate priorities to close the resulting emissions gap, create new jobs and support transitioning workers, support environmental justice priorities without worsening inequities, and meet the climate test in the coming days and weeks as we approach the United Nations climate negotiations.

On immigration, meanwhile, the CPC wanted the reconciliation bill to “provide a roadmap to citizenship for essential workers, [temporary protected status] recipients, and Dreamers,” children of immigrants who are brought to the United States as children.

The Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, has advised Democrats that they cannot accomplish their immigration goals under budget reconciliation rules. Democrats could overrule MacDonough or replace her at any time, but they typically defer to their unelected parliamentary adviser, as she regularly offers them a convenient excuse to avoid passing legislation that might help people.

The final indignities arrived over the weekend, in typical Washington news-dump fashion — in which politicians unload their bad news at a time when the public is too busy to notice — with Politico reporting that Democrats are getting ready to axe their plans to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and to include dental, vision and hearing benefits under the traditional Medicare program.

The CPC, of course, wanted Democrats to improve on their existing drug-pricing plan, and use the “savings to pay for lowering Medicare eligibility age and expanding benefits to include dental, vision and hearing.” Now, both ideas could be cut from the reconciliation bill entirely.

If the drug pricing plan does remain in the bill, Politico reports that senators “are discussing exempting drugs produced by small biotech companies, phasing in what negotiations remain over a longer period, and only applying the lower negotiated prices within Medicare and not to private insurance, as progressives and advocates wanted.”

The CPC had said that “everyone — including the uninsured and private plan participants — should benefit not just from lower negotiated prices, but from inflationary caps on drug prices.” They also wanted Democrats to “expand the numbers and types of drugs eligible for negotiation, launch prices, and inflation caps.”

When all of these developments are taken together, the reality becomes clear. Democratic leaders clearly expect progressives to once again fold without a peep when they inevitably cast a gutted reconciliation bill as the only realistic measure they are able to pass.

The only way to change those expectations — and to actually wield power — is for CPC members to pledge to vote no on a hollowed-out shell, and finally make their demands clear. If they don’t, they’ll likely get rolled, and no barrage of tweets or press releases or email blasts will hide that avoidable outcome.