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Ryan Grim on the Budget Reconciliation Bill: “Progressives Have Leverage”

Ryan Grim

In the byzantine parliamentary politics surrounding the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, progressives have more cards to play than in past policy fights. But corporate-backed Democrats like Kyrsten Sinema are still standing in the way.

Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus pose in front of the US Capitol Building along with Senator Bernie Sanders, 2021. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Interview by
Luke Savage

In March, Congress passed the nearly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan — the first major part of the Biden administration’s domestic agenda. After that, things got a lot more complicated.

The next package of reforms was split in two: a bipartisan infrastructure bill championed by some moderate Democrats, and a much larger suite of reforms progressives hope to pass using the reconciliation process. Breaking her months-long pledge to keep the two bills linked together, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week signaled her intention to de-link them — raising the prospect of a complicated showdown between different factions of the Democratic coalition.

The Intercept’s DC bureau chief Ryan Grim is a veteran of complicated congressional wrangling, having had a front-row seat for previous major policy fights, including the infamous debate over the Affordable Care Act. Yesterday, Grim sat down with Jacobin’s Luke Savage to discuss the fluid legislative and political dynamics now at play — and why the congressional left is better equipped to fight its corner than it was in the Obama years.


LS

To begin, let’s lay out the backstory. It begins, I suppose, immediately after the passage of Biden’s big stimulus bill, the American Rescue Plan Act. What were the origins of this two-track strategy, where the rest of Biden’s agenda was split into two separate bills — the stuff the progressives wanted and the infrastructure stuff that the moderates said they could support?

RG

Chuck Schumer claimed he was the progenitor of it. And I think that’s plausible. As early as June — and I don’t think it was very public at that time — there were already hints that that seemed to be the direction that it was going.

What appealed to me about it was that it gave progressives actual leverage, for the first time almost ever, because it connected to something that centrists actually wanted. With Obamacare, the centrists could take it or leave it. With Wall Street reform, they could take it or leave it. So any bluffs that progressives tried to throw out — “we’re going to take this down!” — the centrists were like, alright, whatever, take it down, we’re happy not doing anything.

But once the bipartisan infrastructure bill — which sucks and is actively bad — was tied to the reconciliation bill, finally a progressive threat to vote no was real.

As long as there’s something fairly decent in a bill, progressives have a hard time making a credible threat. For example, you want Medicare for All? Well, we’re going to expand Medicaid to a million people. We know you want Medicare for All, but we can’t have Medicare for All. You can either expand Medicaid to a million new people, or you can have nothing. And ninety-nine out of a hundred times, progressives in that situation will say, okay, fine. We’ll expand Medicaid to a million people. And leadership knows that, and that’s how they’ve driven them into the ground so many times in the past.

But they don’t totally want the bipartisan bill. It’s fossil fuel heavy. It has a bunch of gross stuff in it. There’s plenty of decent stuff in it, too — rural broadband, etc. But in order to get the progressives to vote for it, they’ll need to give them the reconciliation package. So it’s an actual negotiation.

LS

In the past few days, there’s been a lot of movement on this story. Nancy Pelosi has announced that she intends to hold a vote on the bipartisan bill as early as Thursday. Can you bring us up to speed on what’s been going on this week?

RG

Josh Gottheimer and eight other business-friendly Democrats blocked the reconciliation bill from moving forward in the House, and Pelosi could not get them off of that position. So as a concession, she said, fine, you can vote on this bipartisan bill on September 27. So they thought they had managed to de-link the two.

Now, as I and a bunch of other people immediately pointed out at the time, he only won the promise of a vote. He didn’t get the promise of a victory. So progressives, to their credit, started organizing. The American Prospect, the Daily Poster, and the Intercept jointly did a whip count and found that more than twenty progressives are publicly ready to vote no. Last Monday they were saying privately that they had as many as fifty no votes. Some of them don’t want to be public because saying that you’re going to oppose a bipartisan infrastructure bill is fine in a blue district, but in a swing district, you can imagine months of campaign ads saying so-and-so threatened to destroy our effort to, like, fix these potholes.

So on Sunday night Pelosi says, I don’t have the votes, and she pulls it off the floor. And as a concession, she says, we’ll deal with this later this week. Then in a private caucus meeting yesterday, she says, we’ve got to vote on this on Thursday. We can’t keep saying that we’re going to put it off.

But today the Congressional Progressive Caucus met privately and two-dozen-plus members said, we’re not voting for this. One after the other, not a single member of the Progressive Caucus said, look, guys, we need to just take a “W” here and move on.

Meanwhile, Republicans are saying, “Pelosi, you’re on your own.” If you get 218 votes, then we’ll release our members and we’ll make it bipartisan because it’s popular and they want to be on the record supporting it. But they’re not going to help her pass it. So that means Pelosi can only lose, say, seven votes — and twenty-five or so just today on the call were nos.

So Pelosi has said two things: (a) I’m going to hold a vote on Thursday; and (b) I will never put a bill on the floor without having the votes. Those two things are in conflict. So I don’t think she’s going to put the bill on the floor on Thursday.

On the call, Ilhan Omar, who’s the whip for the Progressive Caucus, said that she had just been speaking with Bernie Sanders right before the call. She said he had urged them to stand strong, said that he would have their back. He also told them, look, if you let the bipartisan bill go through, you’re not going to get the reconciliation bill out of the Senate; they’re going to walk away with your money.

And a couple of front-liners — members who serve in swing districts — also spoke and said, look, we need the reconciliation bill. We need the “Build Back Better” stuff in order to run for reelection. Like, forget everything else — you try going into reelection without extending the child tax credit, letting all this stuff expire when the alternative would be to run on universal pre-K, universal childcare benefit, extending the child tax credit to 2025, lots more broadband, and climate change stuff? This stuff polls through the roof. Swing districts are no longer these right-wing rural areas. These are suburbs, and this stuff polls well.

So what’s unusual about this political alignment is that you have these swing-district Democrats standing firm with Bernie Sanders, saying, no, we actually have to do something.

LS

In your most recent piece in the Intercept, you compare the current dynamic to the one that prevailed during the Obamacare debate, which you covered very closely. Why does the current dynamic seem to be a little more favorable to the progressive wing of the Democratic party than something like the Affordable Care Act debate?

RG

For one, the Progressive Caucus was not as progressive. You know, Nancy Pelosi was an original member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in the early ’90s. All you had to do to join the Progressive Caucus back then was be willing to call yourself progressive, which in practice was risky, unless you were representing a place like San Francisco.

So, it wasn’t that progressive. It also wasn’t well organized. Raúl Grijalva, who was its cochair at the time, described it to me as a Noam Chomsky book reading club. It wasn’t organized to be an actual force.

The other problem was the structural one that I alluded to earlier, which was exacerbated by what happened in Massachusetts after Ted Kennedy’s death, when Scott Brown won his shock victory and took the Senate majority down from sixty to fifty-nine.

Now all of a sudden, this was the bill. They didn’t have sixty votes anymore so they couldn’t go to conference and negotiate it and then put it back through the Senate, because they only had fifty-nine votes. And they didn’t have the will to blow up the filibuster. So it was a take it or leave it moment.

Something like sixty progressives in the House had signed a letter saying they would never support health care reform that didn’t include a robust public option. But that public option was not in there. They did actually get slightly more Medicaid expansion in exchange for caving on that. So they were faced with this choice: Do we take this crappy half a loaf or do we do nothing? And the choice was obvious for them.

I don’t think anybody voted against it from the Left. There may have been one no vote from the Left, depending on how you count, but certainly sixty members did not vote against it.

I’ve actually spent a lot of my time since then thinking about that moment and about what it was that they did wrong, what the structural obstacles were that prevented them from using their leverage, what the organizational obstacles were, and how they could change that the next time they had a majority.

So, organizationally they’re much stronger. Financially, they’re now much less dependent on corporate money than they were in 2009. Because even to this day, a ton of those Progressive Caucus members take corporate PAC money.

And then this time you have this unique situation where the centrists sort of own themselves in a way, because they only put this bipartisan bill together in the hopes that by doing so they would take enough energy out of the broader push that they could kill it. But that didn’t happen; there’s still enough energy on the Left to say no, we need all this other stuff too.

LS

When it comes to the opposition to the reconciliation bill, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have obviously emerged at the forefront of the media coverage. What would you say accounts for their opposition to the reconciliation bill, especially since it’s the core of the administration’s agenda?

RG

I think Manchin is mostly just being Manchin. He puts on this massive show of being obstructionist to the Democratic agenda, being at odds with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and at war with Schumer and Pelosi. And then he uses that back home to say, look, I’m at war with the Democrats, I’m fighting for the people of West Virginia and what’s best for them. And his pattern the last couple years has been to create as many new cycles as he can for himself where he’s in conflict with Democrats and then in the end he’ll vote with Democrats.

So he’s an easier beast to understand. His intense opposition to climate measures are also easy to understand. He’s buddies with all the coal barons and he is himself a coal producer — he owns a company that has made him like $4.5 million since he’s been in the Senate, as Dan Boguslaw reported for us in the Intercept. (He says he put it in a blind trust.) When your self-interest and your class’s self-interest have been part of your politics for so long, that ultimately fuses into an ideology. So in that sense, it’s ideological for Manchin.

With Sinema, it just feels like corruption. She is very tight with a lot of very rich people and is carrying their message, which is that they don’t want any tax increases.

And that’s what this is really about. It’s about them not wanting the corporate tax increase. They don’t want this surtax on people making more than $5 million. They don’t want personal income taxes raised for the wealthy, and they don’t want anything to happen to the carried interest loophole for private equity and hedge funds. And if Sinema holds the line on that, then it’s all screwed as far as I can tell.

I think the same is true on the House side with the Josh Gottheimer types. The New Democrat types, or the caucus inside the House that represents them — they’re all on board for this. Suzan DelBene, who’s the chair of the New Dems, is the most outspoken advocate of the child tax credit there. And they’re on board for all these tax hikes. It’s a bizarre situation.

So that leaves straight-up corruption, in the sense of very particular interests that have very particular goals in this bill, acting largely through No Labels, a dark money group, and only needing to find a very small handful of Democrats in the House to try to screw things up.

LS

So what are the conceivable scenarios going forward? Could the bipartisan bill somehow be passed on its own? Is that in fact the scenario that the establishment is hoping for at this point?

RG

One way for Manchin to get the bipartisan bill through could be to say, “I’m out of reconciliation, forget it. It’s not happening. It’s dead. I hate the progressives, they’re being mean.” Then it’s over. And then Pelosi picks up like fifty Republicans or something and passes the bipartisan bill. That’s one potential path forward.

It’s very, very hard to imagine fifty Republicans, though. So it becomes a question of whether the progressives can muster more no votes than the Republicans can muster yes votes.

If the progressives can muster enough votes, it comes down to the question of how much Manchin wants this bipartisan bill, and how much Sinema wants it. Because Sinema has been running around Arizona telling everyone who will listen about her achievement — it validates her entire bipartisan brand that she was able to bring together these senators and hash out what she calls a $1.2 trillion bill (which is actually a $550 billion bill), that fixes all of these problems that we have in the country. So the question is how much does she need that for her brand? If she does need it, then things are back on track. But that’s the way it falls apart.

LS

And what about the consequences politically? What’s the potential fallout for both Biden and the progressives if the reconciliation bill doesn’t get through?

RG

Well, it’s funny, we’re sort of talking about marginal consequences because people are assuming that they’re going to lose the House no matter what they do right now.

There’s a chance that they run on all of this awesome stuff and they hold the House by running ads saying, “look what we did.” That hasn’t really worked in the past — voters don’t really respond to that.

But no party has ever really tried it, so maybe it could work. That would literally be a novel, not-since-the-New-Deal strategy, to run on something, deliver it, and then win on having delivered it. That’s never been tried, really, at least not since political scientists started measuring midterm effects and such.

The consequences for Sinema of losing her bipartisan bill could be serious. The consequences for Manchin could be significant if he’s even running again in 2024. The consequences for Gottheimer and other Democrats associated with killing Biden’s presidency could also be significant. The front-line Democrats who needed something to run on in the suburbs are properly screwed as a result of it.

All the progressives and deep blue districts will get reelected, but they’ll have to serve in the minority, which — what’s the point of that?

LS

So your prediction for this Thursday is that you don’t think Pelosi will go forward with this vote?

RG

She’s not whipping it. Biden has said there’s no rush. Manchin, in comments with reporters outside the Capitol said, we’ll get it done by November 2022. So where’s the pressure coming from? And more than two dozen progressives on this call said they’re pledged against it. So I think a lot could change.

I’ve had a couple members say that things are moving really fast, that there could be some type of a deal by Thursday. And if that happens, that could change the calculation. But it’s Tuesday already. When Manchin was asked what he and Joe Biden were talking about, he said, we were talking about what it means to live in a society and what do we want our country to be. Well, it’s a little late for these philosophical discussions.

LS

So, in short, it’s probably pretty important for progressive Democrats to stick to the line that they’ve been taking if they want the reconciliation bill to have any chance of passing?

RG

That’s what Bernie thinks, and he’s in the room with these folks. And if you watch Sinema and Manchin, they don’t seem terribly enthusiastic about this reconciliation deal. So if they don’t have to do it, and you’re just relying on their sense of civic virtue, you’re probably going to be disappointed.