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As Democratic Gears Grind, Their Flawed Legislation Tiptoes Toward Doom

When is a Democratic majority not a Democratic majority? When it’s a Democratic majority.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi leaves a news conference on the Protecting Our Democracy Act, in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on September 21, 2021.

Question: When is a Democratic majority not a Democratic majority? Answer: When it’s a Democratic majority.

The roof started to cave in visibly on Monday, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned her caucus to expect “adjustmentsto the $3.5 trillion climate/social spending budget bill that lies at the center of President Biden’s policy agenda. This is Democrat for “Prepare for imminent retreat, again.”

A day later, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced that they would keep to a totally artificial and arbitrary September 27 deadline for voting on the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, a huge victory for the likes of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and the House Pharma Dems, who have been chopping away at the legislation like hyper-caffeinated woodpeckers (or like feckless politicians swimming in lobbyist cash).

Members of the Progressive Caucus have made it clear that they plan to vote to kill the infrastructure bill if it is brought up separately from the budget bill, because they know conservative Democrats will vote for the former and against the latter if they don’t come on the same sled.

It is clear at this juncture that the budget bill will not be ready for a vote by September 27. Hoyer’s announcement effectively decoupled the two bills, and if the Progressive Caucus is to maintain any credibility at all, they will have to vote down the infrastructure bill in order to rescue both it and the climate bill; if the infrastructure bill fails, it can be offered again coupled to the budget bill once the budget bill is ready for daylight.

The plot thickened substantially late Tuesday after Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the House Progressive Caucus, emerged from a two-hour meeting with Speaker Pelosi. Upon its conclusion, Jayapal made it known that she had enough votes in hand — half the 95-person caucus, in her words — to kill the infrastructure bill. Deftly swatting the ball into the Speaker’s court, Jayapal said, “I don’t think that the Speaker is going to bring a bill up that is going to fail.”

Note well, gentle reader, that there is almost no Republican involvement in this slow-rolling fiasco. Mitch McConnell has informed the world that there will be no Republican votes for anything — the budget bill, the government shutdown bill, or the debt ceiling bill — which effectively makes him and his caucus one of the lakes on the Stratego game board: It’s there, it ain’t moving, so you have to go around it.

House Republicans are even more invisible, though there is mounting pressure on Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to whip his caucus into voting “no” on the infrastructure bill. If 30+ Democrats also vote “no,” however, those GOP votes will be a sullen afterthought and nothing more.

President Biden, whose entire domestic agenda is about to go up in a ball of flaming tatters, is planning to hold a Wednesday sit-down with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker Pelosi in order to find a way forward. A number of Democrats have been pleading with Biden to get more involved in the process, but the guest list raises the question: Why just those two, and not Jayapal and a contingent from the Progressive Caucus? Why not Bernie Sanders, who has cultivated this process with care and patience from the beginning? Why not the real adults in the room who have the power to make or break this thing?

It is past time to stop mollifying “moderate” (conservative!) Democrats, who have been the real wreckers over the course of this process. A full 80 percent of Sinema’s Arizona voters support the Medicare/drug pricing reforms she has pledged to vote against, and the only coherent reason she opposes those reforms is because a dark money group funded by the pharmaceutical industry launched a massive ad campaign praising her just before she announced her opposition.

When you make concessions to that sort of brazen broad-daylight corruption, concessions that will cause real-world pain for millions of real-world people, you will come away with nothing and get everything you deserve. The progressives have been steadfast throughout this benighted process — they have stood for everything a “Democrat” is supposed to support, they have already made significant compromises with the “moderates” in the name of progress, and it looks an awful lot like they are about to get the back of Pelosi’s hand, again.

If so, there’s a galling irony here. The Democrats were thrilled to recapture the House majority in 2018, having done so by riding anti-Trump sentiment to victory in a number of conservative districts. Those gains were rolled back in 2020 when Republicans took back a number of those seats. In the time between, Speaker Pelosi has gone above and beyond defending the safety of her “moderate” Reps, even when they voted with Republicans time and again.

Those same “moderates” are now the ones trashing this entire process. When is a majority not a majority? When those people are allowed to drive the bus.

The whole thing smells like smoke right now, like gears grinding, like a massive and tragic waste of everyone’s time.

In a way, I suppose, it might come to be a fitting epitaph: To have all this sound and fury come to nothing because the people who round out the House majority are also doing the most damage to the priorities of that majority. These conservative Democrats don’t want to make prescription drugs more affordable, any more than they want to tax their wealthy benefactors. That fact has already been included as one of the concessions made in the way these bills will pay for themselves, and it stands as a glaring flaw at the heart of the whole process. For all the genuine good contained in the budget bill, it pays for itself while making sure the vast wealth of the wealthiest remains virtually untouched. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich explains:

Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee released its proposed tax increases to fund President Biden’s $3.5 trillion social policy plan. Here’s the big thing that hit me: Democrats didn’t go after the huge accumulations of wealth at the top – representing the largest share of the economy in more than a century.

You might have thought they’d be eager to tax America’s 660 billionaires whose fortunes have increased $1.8 trillion since the start of the pandemic — an amount that could fund half of Biden’s plan and still leave the billionaires as rich as they were before the pandemic began. But House Democrats on Ways and Means decided to raise revenue the traditional way, taxing annual income rather than immense wealth. They aim to raise the highest income tax rate and apply a 3 percent surtax to incomes over $5 million.

Yet the dirty little secret — which House Democrats certainly know — is the ultra-rich don’t live off their paychecks. Jeff Bezos’s salary from Amazon was $81,840 last year, yet he rakes in some $149,353 every minute from the soaring value of his Amazon stocks – which is how he affords five mansions, including one in Washington D.C. with 25 bathrooms.

In other words, a lot of things will improve if this bill somehow struggles safely to shore, but nothing significant will actually change. Capital must be protected, and wealth must be extracted: That should be carved into the sign on the Statue of Liberty, right below the word WARNING.

I live in a country where the current president has his job because Mike Pence got desperate consultation from Dan Quayle on the limits of his constitutional powers regarding the certification of Electors while a furious mob was battering down the Capitol doors trying to stop the whole thing in its tracks, and now a pair of bills that almost everyone likes is probably doomed because capitalism doesn’t want them.

It’s not over yet, and Democratic leadership could pull off the legislative version of a nine-run rally in the late innings… except these are the late innings, and there is a government shutdown/debt ceiling crisis to be dealt with almost simultaneously. “The worst are filled with passionate intensity,” said W.B. Yeats. Pretty much sums it up.