On paper at least, there’s been a months-long consensus shared among both progressive Democrats and senior figures in the party leadership that the two big pieces of legislation currently facing Congress — the Build Back Better (BBB) reconciliation package and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF) — should be passed in tandem. On this point, the likes of Nancy Pelosi (“There ain’t gonna be no bipartisan bill unless we’re going to have a reconciliation bill”) and Joe Biden himself (“If only one comes to me, this is the only one that comes to me, I’m not signing it. It’s in tandem”) had been unequivocal, as had Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal.
Though somewhat convoluted at the level of detail, what happened on Friday represented a marked and undeniable shift away from this position. While less surprising from the likes of Biden and Pelosi, who in the wake of last week’s elections are quite desperate for anything they can call a political win, Jayapal’s maneuver is altogether more puzzling. In brief: Friday saw the passage of BIF through the House by a margin of 228 to 206, with only six Democrats (Jamaal Bowman, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Cori Bush, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) refusing to cave to leadership pressure and voting against the bill.
Officially, progressives have a commitment from centrists to vote for BBB pending the provision of a financial analysis from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) sometime later this month. The risk, of course, is that the CBO’s analysis will be used as a pretext by Democratic centrists to withdraw what is currently their nominal support for the bill — a possibility that is distinctly difficult to ignore amid its endless watering down.
With BIF now safely through the House, progressives no longer have their only real bargaining chip and could emerge from the process empty-handed as a result — a fact emphasized by Representative Omar as she explained her No vote: “Passing the infrastructure bill without passing the Build Back Better Act first risks leaving behind childcare, paid leave, health care, climate action, housing, education, and a roadmap to citizenship.” (The American Prospect’s David Dayen, for what it’s worth, offers a charitable reading of Jayapal’s calculus here.)
One way or the other, we’ll probably know the fate of the BBB Act soon enough. But there was always something else at stake in these negotiations and, whatever ultimately comes of Jayapal’s decision to abandon her own red line, it has likely weakened the credibility of Congressional progressives in the future. In effect, a leadership that reflexively defers to centrist and Blue Dog lawmakers has been sent the message that progressives will fold with sufficient pressure. By voting against the BIF, meanwhile, members of the Squad displayed the kind of basic political consistency that might have forced the leadership to alter its strategy if other progressive members had cleaved to it as well.