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Progressive Pressure Over the Budget Reconciliation Bill Is Creating Establishment Pushback

The pressure from pro-corporate establishment voices against the budget reconciliation bill is intensifying because progressives are, for the first time in generations, threatening to use their leverage and refuse to vote for a watered-down bill stripped of measures that would aid working people.

President Joe Biden walks with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer at the Capitol in Washington DC as he arrives to discuss the latest progress on his infrastructure bill. (Caroline Brehman / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Way back in August, the Daily Poster told you that progressive House Democrats’ willingness to hold out for a serious anti-poverty and climate-focused reconciliation bill would likely determine the outcome of the epic battle unfolding on Capitol Hill.

We also told you that if progressives began holding out, corporate Democrats, egged on by a deal-hungry president, would revise their strategy and try to help their business donors hollow out that bill by defanging the legislative details.

One month later, all of that has proven to be true, and this conflict has now devolved into what most fights in Washington become: a clash between good policy and blatant corruption, and a deeper struggle between aspiration and lethargy.

“All Done Together, Or It’s Going to Be None”

Thanks to the whip count work of the Daily Poster, the American Prospect and the Intercept, we know that twenty-one House Democrats have publicly pledged to vote against passage of a business-sculpted infrastructure bill unless it remains coupled with the much bigger reconciliation legislation, which is supposed to include climate initiatives, drug pricing measures, anti-poverty programs, and higher taxes on the wealthy.

This two-track strategy is sound: The idea is that the only way to get corporate Democrats to provide necessary votes to pass a reconciliation bill they hate is to link it to an infrastructure boondoggle that their corporate donors desperately want.

“We’re either going to have to get this all done together, or it’s going to be none,” Daily Poster subscribers were told during last week’s live chat with Democratic representative Brendan Boyle, who has committed to withholding his vote. “That’s the practical reality.”

If progressives follow through and vote down the bipartisan infrastructure bill, it would be no small thing. It would not only be a reversal from their previous surrender on a $15 minimum wage as part of President Joe Biden’s COVID relief bill, it would be the first time in forever that progressive lawmakers actually opted to wield real power.

That’s huge — but there’s a catch.

Progressive holdouts have — deliberately — not made specific demands about what they believe must be in the reconciliation legislation. That omission 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.

In the last two days, this kind of pressure has ratcheted up in a coordinated fashion.

Biden is now reportedly telling corporate Democrats that they get to decide how much to slash out of the reconciliation bill.

Similarly, John Podesta — who ran the corporate-funded Center for American Progress — circulated a memo on Capitol Hill telling progressives to suddenly back off the $3.5 trillion framework, even though it already passed the House and Senate, even though $3.5 trillion is already a compromise from $6 trillion, and even though $3.5 trillion is a comparatively paltry sum that’s less than what the government is expected to shovel out the door to the Pentagon in just the next five years alone.

Podesta has declared that “we will not secure the full $3.5 trillion investment” — demanding Democrats once again back off and live to never fight another day, all in the name of protecting the party’s prospects in the upcoming midterm elections.

Somehow forgotten is how the same demands for compromise and capitulation were made during President Barack Obama’s first two years, resulting in an all-too-small stimulus that did not adequately boost the economy, and that helped create the conditions for Democrats’ electoral shellacking in 2010.

Pay Attention to the Billionaires Behind the Curtain

We know what’s at issue in this conflict — and it’s not some earnest policy dispute over which particular policies would be good for the country. We’ve long known what needs to be done to fight the climate crisis, make taxes more fair, and prevent Americans from being fleeced with the world’s highest prices for medicine — and with the nation facing a climate cataclysm, a health care emergency, a pandemic, and economic turmoil, much of that has been promised by Democrats and is supposed to be in their reconciliation bill.

But in recent weeks, we’ve seen these agenda items put on the chopping block: Tax measures have been trimmed, prescription drug pricing provisions have been voted down, threats against climate programs have been made. This has happened because of a factor that politicians rarely acknowledge and that reporters and pundits at corporate media outlets don’t like to mention.

And that factor is: blatant, obvious corruption in a capital city immersed in corporate cash, overseen by business lobbyists who buy votes, and run by lawmakers who have their own financial interests in mind.

Some obvious examples:

  • The Daily Poster reported that after campaigning on a promise to reduce prescription drug prices, Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) threatened to oppose those provisions as a Big Pharma–funded dark money group began bankrolling ads for her — a move boosting drugmakers’ support for Sinema beyond even the hundreds of thousands of dollars of pharmaceutical industry campaign cash she’s already raked in. The pharma front group, Center Forward, has already spent around $600,000 on TV and radio ads characterizing Sinema as the second coming of the late Arizona senator John McCain, according to data from AdImpact.
  • The Daily Poster broke open the story of three House Democrats blocking those same prescription drug provisions after they hauled in roughly $1.6 million of campaign cash from the pharmaceutical industry, and as one of the lawmakers’ top aides became a pharmaceutical industry lobbyist. Facing an angry backlash from voters, one of the lawmakers effectively admitted that the industry uses campaign cash to buy political access to legislators, while another refused to stop taking the industry’s money because he said that would “defund my campaign.”
  • Forty-eight hours after his corporate donors launched a huge lobbying campaign against the reconciliation bill, West Virginia coal magnate-turned-senator Joe Manchin took time out from partying on his luxury yacht with other senators to demand that the bill be halted. Now, to the likely delight of his staffers-turned-fossil-fuel-industry-lobbyists, Manchin is promising to try to gut the bill’s climate measures amid worsening wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes.
  • Representative Richard Neal (D-MA) used his chairmanship of the House’s tax-writing committee to eliminate or defang provisions closing tax loopholes that benefit billionaire dynasties and private equity moguls — and he did this almost exactly a year after Wall Street helped him buy reelection in the face of a tough primary battle.
  • The nine House Democrats leading the charge against their party and pushing to decouple the infrastructure bill from the reconciliation bill raked in more than $3 million from donors in the pharmaceutical and fossil fuel industries — the industries most opposed to the latter legislation.

You’ll notice that all these piles of cash are almost never mentioned in any of the coverage of the palace dramas in Washington. It seems that a prerequisite for a TV anchor job or a Beltway reporting gig at a corporate media outlet is an ironclad commitment to standing in the shadow of a Mount Everest–sized pile of corporate campaign cash, and insisting with a straight face that politics is just a battle of ideas between earnest statesmen presenting different visions for the country’s future.

The average cable TV news viewer is led to be entranced by the audiovisual show of Washington’s soundbite fireworks — and to pay no attention to the billionaires sculpting the legislative language behind the curtain.

In this phantasmagoria of propaganda and bullshit, we’re asked to believe that these corporate Democrats are genuinely worried about spending too much money — even as they back ever-more-bloated budgets for a Pentagon that is so wasteful and so unregulated that it regularly loses track of hundreds of millions of dollars.

We’re asked to perceive these corporatists as the real financial tightwads, even as they are pushing self-enriching SALT tax breaks that could hand half a trillion dollars to the richest 1 percent of the country.

We’re asked to believe that these alleged fiscal hawks are upset about the reconciliation bill’s alleged $3.5 trillion price tag — even though that’s not the actual price tag, because it does not take into account the $2 trillion of revenue that would be raised by the remaining tax provisions in the legislation.

We’re asked to believe that it is the progressives who are being unreasonable by demanding the government do the absolute minimum to fight a climate crisis that threatens all life on the planet — and we’re further asked to believe that corporate Democrats are pragmatic “centrists” for working to make sure their fossil fuel industry donors can continue incinerating the ecosystem that supports human existence.

In short, we’re asked to believe ever more ridiculous lies designed to avert our eyes from the payoffs, graft, and legalized bribes taking place right in front of our faces.

The Laziness Factor

Corruption, though, is only most of the story — but not all of it. The other factor is what the bible calls sloth — and what is more commonly called laziness. And it is laziness enabled by privilege.

When forced to choose, Democrats in Washington have for decades prioritized norms over values, bipartisan rhetoric over legislative accomplishment, and conflict avoidance over political warfare — even when that warfare is necessary to solve problems imperiling the country.

The party of Franklin Roosevelt welcoming the hatred of oligarchs became the party of Bill Clinton deregulating Wall Street. The party of Lyndon Johnson twisting the arms of his own party’s legislators to pass Medicare became the party of Obama refusing to even gently pressure his fellow Democrats to challenge the health care industry — and worse, brushing back Democrats who tried to do the right thing.

Put another way: The party that once seemed to understand that power concedes nothing without demand has become a party whose leaders preemptively demand concessions to power — because they are the power, and they don’t need the concessions.

In this reality, Democratic decision-makers can opt to languorously party on Manchin’s yacht rather than fight because they don’t need to do anything for their own survival — the campaign finance system preordains most incumbent reelections, and the revolving door guarantees their post-government wealth.

In the present moment, this is one reason why we haven’t seen a Senate full of millionaires end the filibuster.

It is also probably part of why we haven’t seen Biden use his bully pulpit and the White House’s vast political resources to exert much public pressure on corporate-aligned lawmakers in his own party — even when they are from blue districts and blue states where he could exert disproportionate influence. He’s the president — the difference between campaigning hard to secure a good reconciliation bill and just sitting in the White House letting Congress turn a decent bill into a meaningless piece of paper doesn’t materially impact his life.

This is also why we are starting to see screams of establishment anger at progressive lawmakers promising to hold out — and why folks like Podesta are couching that rage in the veneer of party “unity.”

Their bellowing is getting louder not because progressives are doing the wrong thing, and not because progressives voting down the infrastructure bill automatically kills everything — on the contrary, congressional leaders can keep bringing these bills back up until they have a deal.

No, the pressure from establishment voices is intensifying because progressives are for the first time in generations threatening to use their legislative leverage — and that could force Washington sloths to actually do real work if they want to be able to tout some kind of legislative accomplishments amid weak job approval numbers.

The notion of having to really work hard — to campaign out in the country, to get in lawmakers’ faces, to pressure members of one’s own party — is offensive and shocking to corporatists who have gotten used to controlling everything without so much as lifting a finger.

Conflict averse to their core, they cannot see the necessity of a protracted battle against their corporate donors and for the cause of helping lots of people. They don’t appear to aspire to much more than a nice press release, and they don’t seem to believe there is a political imperative or electoral upside in making sure legislation truly improves voters’ lives.

In short, they don’t want a fight — indeed, they do not want a world in which progressives even try to fight.

That’s not a world today’s Washington careerists have ever lived in — and because of that, the economic, health care, and environmental crises we face have now become existential.

But that world of pitched battles and tenacious political combat did once exist. It defined the epoch when Democrats passed the most popular programs in American history and built their most durable majorities.

While those are seen as the bygone days of a halcyon era, it can also be the present moment — but only if enough outside pressure is brought to bear, and only if progressives hold out.