If your eyes glaze over every time you hear terms like “infrastructure” and “reconciliation,” you’re not alone. The interminable battle over the two major spending bills being considered in Congress is designed to confuse and bore the population into a deep slumber — the needless complexity is not a bug, it is a feature designed to sedate you, or at least distract you from the corruption and looting that tends to happen in the text of thousand-page bills.
But if you tune out all the noise from cable TV news and ignore the bilge being pumped out by Beltway gossip sheets, this particular conflict isn’t that complicated — and the climate disasters battering the country right now illustrate how important the outcome is.
Here’s what it all comes down to: America has a feudal economy built on devastating inequality and on a form of climate ecocide that threatens the survival of the planet’s ecosystem. What’s unfolding in Congress is a last-ditch legislative attempt to modify that awful reality, and the fate of that effort will hinge on the answer to three fairly simple questions.
What follows is a review of these questions, and some takeaways. You can also watch my discussion about all of this on the YouTube show Breaking Points.
1. Will Progressives Hold Out?
Right now, there are two bills — a somewhat limited bipartisan infrastructure bill and a much more ambitious budget proposal that includes anti-poverty and climate initiatives. The interplay between the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the much larger anti-poverty/climate bill is essential, because American politics is so wildly corrupt that, in order to get the bare minimum of good things, you typically have to lard it up with lots of stuff that’s not so good.
Put simply: In order to have any chance of passing a budget bill with huge investments in clean energy, our kleptocratic politics requires a corruption tithe — in this case, funding for roads and airports and all sorts of other carbon pollution that big donors want but that might not be advisable in the era of cataclysmic climate change.
At this point, powerful industry groups have stripped down the infrastructure legislation so that it includes all the corporate goodies they want and almost none of the initiatives needed to avert an ecological disaster. These business interests purchase politicians through campaign cash, and they have now ordered them to pass this legislation and kill the separate budget bill that may end up including the stuff corporate interests hate — stuff like polluter taxes and fairer corporate taxes, an end to oil subsidies, and provisions that would let Medicare negotiate lower prescription drug prices.
Corporate America’s goal here is to decouple the infrastructure bill from the climate and budget bill. If that happens, conservative Democrats such as Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Senator Joe Manchin, and the Gottheimer Ghouls can vote to pass the former bill alone without having to also provide the necessary votes to pass the latter bill. That would effectively kill the climate/budget bill — which many of these Democrats are making clear is their whole objective.
This would be a win for business interests and a loss for everyone else — which is exactly why, as we reported, the particular group of Democrats pushing for this decoupling just so happens to also be bankrolled by Big Oil and Big Pharma. It is also why business groups like No Labels and the US Chamber of Commerce are now cheering these obstructionists on.
The first step to avert this outcome is to prevent the decoupling of the two bills. The best chance to do so is for enough progressive lawmakers in both the House and Senate to turn their “no climate, no deal” rhetoric into ironclad pledges to vote against any infrastructure bill until the climate/budget bill passes. And not just pledge to do that but to actually do it if Democratic Party leaders bring a standalone infrastructure bill up for a vote.
Following through on that pledge will likely deprive Democratic leaders of enough House votes to pass the standalone Senate-passed infrastructure bill. Instead, they will have to keep the two bills together. That creates the most optimal conditions for the climate/budget bill to actually become law. Only under that scenario will Manchin, Sinema, and the Gottheimer Ghouls be compelled to vote for both bills in order to get the infrastructure legislation they crave.
2. Will Corporate Democrats Convince Republicans to Break With Trump?
The operative word in the above paragraph, though, is “likely” — and one variable still in play is the House GOP, whose members, in theory, could vote for infrastructure legislation if Speaker Nancy Pelosi puts it up for a vote as a standalone bill. In the narrowly divided House, the number of Democrats who hold to a “no climate, no deal” pledge will determine the number of House Republican votes that would be needed to pass an infrastructure bill.
This is obviously Corporate Democrats’ strategy. Earlier this week, they convinced Pelosi to commit to a vote on an infrastructure bill by September 27, and between now and then, they are hoping to secure enough Republican “yes” votes to overcome any progressive “no” votes.
But would enough Republicans play ball? If the majority of Democrats in the ninety-six-member Congressional Progressive Caucus withhold their votes, it’s hard to imagine Republicans providing enough votes to overcome that. But if the number of progressive holdouts dwindle, then it may be a different story.
On one hand, twenty Senate Republicans just voted for a standalone infrastructure bill — and they did so in defiance of former president Donald Trump, who has been slamming the legislation not because he’s some principled hero but because he’s a nihilistic chaos agent who believes in nothing.
On the other hand, House Republicans have proven to be much less willing to defy Trump, and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is opposing the infrastructure bill.
Then again, House Republicans are universally opposed to the climate/budget bill and have deployed their political machine to try to vilify it as a “socialist spending spree.” So enough of them may see helping corporate Democrats pass a standalone bipartisan infrastructure bill as their best chance to kill the climate/budget bill that the GOP hates even more.
That’s precisely what corporate Democrats and their donors are hoping for.
3. What Does “Robust” Actually Mean?
There is now a House- and Senate-approved $3.5 trillion reconciliation framework for a final climate/budget bill — but the granular details of the final legislation are only now being written, and progressive legislators have not clearly defined their non-negotiables.
Yes, they have made some important general statements. For instance, Democratic representative Cori Bush said, “We won’t support the infrastructure package without first passing a reconciliation bill that delivers lower prescription drug prices, comprehensive climate action, universal pre-K, and expanded Medicare.”
But these progressives have not made clear in a line-by-line way what specifically must be in that reconciliation bill for them to support it. In fact, a letter from three members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus suggests they are studiously avoiding specifics. That letter says most caucus members are committing to withholding their votes on the bipartisan infrastructure bill “until the Senate adopted a robust reconciliation package” — but the concept of “robust” remained noticeably undefined.
This is a problem, because while words like “lower” and “comprehensive” and “expanded” and “robust” sound nice, they are also fungible — and fungibility is how seemingly good legislation can get watered down to nothing. It’s how a $3.5 trillion spending plan that represents the absolute least we must do to save the planet can be whittled down to a fraction of that, dooming us to climate incineration.
Pelosi already seems to be zeroing in on this vagueness. As she said earlier this week: “We must keep the 51-vote privilege by passing the budget and work with House and Senate Democrats to reach agreement in order for the House to vote on a Build Back Better Act that will pass the Senate.”
When you translate that from incomprehensible Washington-ese into understandable vernacular, what she’s saying is that the climate/budget bill is not set in stone — and that rather than having a standoff in defense of the $3.5 trillion bill, she may end up pushing to pare it back or gut it if Sinema, Manchin, or any other craven Democratic senator decides to object and imperil the “51-vote privilege.”
In that scenario, progressive lawmakers who promised “no climate, no deal” but who did not clearly define what “climate” or “robust” meant could find themselves being ordered by Pelosi and President Joe Biden to vote for the infrastructure bill coupled with a Manchin-gutted climate/budget bill. They’ll be told that this is a victory that honors their deal, because they at least got something they can pretend is a real climate bill, regardless of how eviscerated and inadequate it proves to be.
The best way to avert this scenario is for progressives to be on record and crystal clear about their demands. That way, if those demands aren’t met, their votes aren’t negotiable when the Democratic Party establishment and its corporate donors put real pressure on them to cave.
Considering all these moving parts, there are legitimate reasons to be pessimistic about the chances for the kind of historic climate/budget bill envisioned by the reconciliation framework. But there are also reasons to be optimistic.
On the pessimistic side, there is precedent and recent history.
In the last few decades, there are few examples of progressive legislators ever holding the line on policy demands, especially in the face of pressure from their own party’s leadership. Only a few months ago, progressive lawmakers in the current Congress refused to even hold out for a $15 minimum wage. Rather than doing what corporate Democrats do and using their considerable leverage, progressives instead just accepted the ruling of an unelected, fireable Senate adviser, allowing Democratic leaders to pretend they couldn’t do anything about the parliamentarian — even though they most certainly could.
Meanwhile, even if progressives do hold out, peeling off a few Republicans to negate them is a well-trodden path in Congress. From the passage of NAFTA to the gutting of Dodd-Frank, we’ve seen Democratic presidencies in which business-backed coalitions come together to pass corporatist legislation, negating tactical opposition of progressives and ideological opposition from the far right.
But on a more optimistic note, there is the very real potential for a new congressional dynamic.
For example, Senator Bernie Sanders is not some junior legislator anymore. He’s the chairman of the Budget Committee, with a national following that — if he chooses — he can activate in a legislative conflict.
Likewise, the narrowly divided House offers a cohesive Congressional Progressive Caucus the rare chance to go beyond tweeting and actually wield power by threatening to withhold their votes. Their leverage is further enhanced by the random good fortune of Trump and his MAGA nihilists trying to deny Pelosi the GOP votes she would need to override those progressive holdouts.
And perhaps most encouraging (and surprising) of all, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer has suddenly seemed to draw a line in the sand with a new letter demanding that his caucus accept the full $3.5 trillion climate/budget plan in order to save the planet from the unfolding environmental cataclysm. Unlike Pelosi’s parsed language, designed to hold out the possibility of gutting that plan, Schumer is unequivocal.
“I want to reiterate how critical this moment is for our country and our world,” he writes. “At the same moment that historic drought and wildfire threaten the West and powerful floods and hurricanes impact large swaths of our country, we are on the precipice of the most significant climate action in our country’s history. I do not believe we have the luxury of failure if we are to provide a good future for ourselves and our children.”
There’s a lot of byzantine congressional process and legislative contortions ahead. But Schumer is right — the stakes couldn’t be higher. How these three aforementioned questions are answered in the coming weeks could determine the fate of America — and the world.