As of this writing, the President Biden has departed for Europe with no legislative clarity in hand, despite a full court press on Thursday morning that included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The framework he proposed for the Build Back Better Act has not been explicitly endorsed by either Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema, which means it does not actually exist yet.
House progressives — with the blessing of Sen. Bernie Sanders — emerged from an early afternoon meeting with Pelosi saying they are still not supportive of a plan to de-couple these two bills, which Pelosi had proposed this morning. Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal told CNN after the meeting that she is a “no” on Pelosi’s proposed vote today. She will not be alone.
Unless something truly dramatic breaks loose this afternoon, this was a big loud morning that moved the process along barely at all. There’s a framework for the Build Back Better Act now, but it only exists if Manchin and Sinema decide to say it does. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is not willing to gamble the fate of the Build Back Better Act on the good word of Biden, because his good word depends on what Manchin and Sinema will do, and if history is any guide, he has no basis to make that promise safely.
In other words: Legislatively speaking, it’s still yesterday around here.
The mayhem began when President Biden came to Capitol Hill to serve congressional Democrats some thin gruel for breakfast. On the menu: The framework for a Build Back Better Act that is half of what it was a month ago, and half again what it was when first devised. For dessert: A push to de-couple the Build Back Better Act from the infrastructure bill, so the infrastructure bill can be voted on first and by itself.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus has fought since August to thwart this de-coupling, because doing so all but assures the Build Back Better Act will die at the hands of conservative Democrats, who have already beaten the thing almost beyond recognition. On Wednesday afternoon, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Japayal told reporters that “there are over three dozen members who feel strongly” about keeping these two bills coupled.
Biden wanted something — anything, really — in his pocket when he went wheels-up for Europe. “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week,” he reportedly told the morning group, evoking the peril of elections that are more than 12 months away.
Late Thursday morning, Sen. Bernie Sanders — one of the principal authors and staunch defenders of the Build Back Better Act — told reporters that “it doesn’t make sense” to pass the infrastructure bill without securing the fate of the Build Back Better Act. “I think that the House should not be voting for an infrastructure bill unless they see very clear language and know that there are 50 senators on board, whatever the agreement may be,” continued Sanders. The message was unmistakable: This thing is nowhere without clarity from Manchin and Sinema.
After Biden concluded his pitch to the Democratic caucus, House Speaker Pelosi essentially scolded the Congressional Progressive Caucus for not charging into agreement with the new framework, chiding them not to “embarrass” the president, according to CNN. When asked about Manchin and Sinema, who can still chop down any or all of the proposed framework, Pelosi told the assemblage they would simply have to trust Biden to get it done. She will reportedly call for a vote on infrastructure alone this afternoon, and will leave the vote open until it passes.
Manchin and Sinema still lurk. Sinema released a statement a bit after 11:00 am saying she was glad to see “significant progress” on the bill, without actually indicating whether she will support it. Manchin, speaking to reporters at about the same time, was equally opaque. “It’s all in the hands of the House,” he said, which is hilarious coming from the senator whose hands have been very busy denuding this bill. “No comment” by any other name is still “No comment.”
Biden, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris, spoke just before noon to formally announce the existence of the Build Back Better Act framework. He thanked congressional Democrats for their hard work, saying, “Nobody gets everything they want. That’s consensus.” This was more than a tad disingenuous; the progressives did the motherlode of compromising in good faith, only to be lied to on more than one occasion. The only “concession” made by conservative Democrats was the fact that the bill still exists in its current tattered form; they didn’t want this bill to exist at all.
On Wednesday, via social media, progressive Rep. Ilhan Omar came down hard on the reasons why the Build Back Better Act has been rendered a shadow of its former self. “First, instead of centering the needs of the American people, corporate Democrats have purely been about lining the pockets and serving the interests of the donor class,” she wrote. “If you really want to know why a provision is being killed, all you have to do is follow the money….” The Twitter thread went on at length to explain how corporate money and fossil fuel lobbyists twisted the Build Back Better Act almost beyond recognition.
Mark my words: Pelosi and her “moderate” House allies will lay this whole fiasco at the feet of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. This is balderdash; nobody wanted this bill more than the House progressives, and they had to watch as Pelosi let the House conservatives she is so protective of tear it apart. Above all else, however, this mess falls on Manchin and Sinema almost completely. They have sown enough chaos to bring us to this brittle moment, which I suspect is what they wanted all along.
Despite what the pundits and “moderates” may say going forward, there is actually no reason why infrastructure must be passed today without the Build Back Better Act. The deadline was artificially constructed around Biden’s travel plans, which is no way to run things when you’re trying to nail down significant legislation. This is, then, an artificial crisis, created by a bunch of right-leaning Democrats who want to have their cake and destroy it, too. No sale.