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Progressive Dems Offer Simple, Brilliant Path Forward for Build Back Better Act

Despite the panicked noises coming from the press, a breakthrough on the Build Back Better Act appears to be at hand.

Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Rep. Pramila Jayapal speaks to reporters after a closed-door meeting with fellow Progressive Democrats at the U.S. Capitol on October 1, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

The debt ceiling crisis has been averted for now, albeit without a single Republican vote in the House, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi is leaning toward using the reconciliation process to get it done. The federal highway spending authority expires in 18 days, leaving ample time to deal with it. Funding for the federal government will not expire until December 3.

While no “top line” spending amount has been agreed to, Democrats in both chambers appear to be moving past the gut-punch of Joe Manchin’s coal-fueled intransigence, and are working to get as much as they can for the people with less money than they wanted. There is no fixed deadline for finalizing and passing the Build Back Better Act and the infrastructure bill, but Democratic leadership devoutly hopes this can get done before November.

All in all, it’s a remarkably packed legislative calendar, and certainly the most impactful one in recent memory. Roadblocks abound, to be sure, but there is scant reason to believe it can’t all get done before the deadlines. Now would be the perfect time for all involved to pause, take a breath, and adopt a broader view of the situation beyond the reactionary WE ALL GONNA DIE fuss and feathers of standard-issue D.C. politics.

Yeah, right. Where’s the fun (and clicks, and advertising dollars) in that kind of calm, deliberate approach? “Biden Bleeds Out,” screamed a Wednesday morning Washington Post headline. The author, Dana Milbank, even went so far as to say out loud the crappy little secret that undergirds most of the legislating that gets done in that dank and humid town: “The ultimate details are less important than passing both bills.”

And boom goes the dynamite. Never mind the fact that the Democrats have had such trouble pushing these wildly popular bills because they have utterly failed to explain what’s so good about them. You know who cares about the details, aside from the people who would benefit from them? The legion of corporate lobbyists who are laboring night and day to destroy or denude the BBB Act specifically because of what the bill contains.

Milbank is hardly alone. “Democrats are nowhere right now,” announces Punchbowl News. “Democrats Are In Peril,” proclaims The New York Times. “Another Bad-News Poll for Democrats,” glooms CNN. “Biden’s Approval Rating Has Fallen,” intones NBC News. Unless I missed a memo, the midterm elections are still 13 months away. This precipice President Biden and his party are allegedly dangling over appears only to exist in the hive mind of reporters who need to fill column inches every day to earn their paychecks.

The D.C. press corps is notorious for its flock-of-birds mentality, wheeling this way and that en masse in search of — and in service to — the accepted, acceptable story line. “Dems in Disarray” has been catnip to this bunch since time out of mind, and nothing about today’s reporting suggests a change of course or an adjustment of perspective is in the offing.

“Like wildebeests crossing the Serengeti, journalists travel in a herd,” columnist Eugene Robinson wrote on Monday. “We follow not the life-giving seasonal rains but a safe, comfortable, groupthink story arc — call it The Narrative — whose current chapter is titled ‘Democrats are doomed’…. So when The Narrative warns that Biden urgently needs to get the progressives and the moderates in his party to set aside their differences, I take a somewhat different view. What I see is a pretty normal exercise in legislative give-and-take, except that it’s all happening within the Democratic Party — while Republicans hoot, holler and obstruct…”

As has been the case throughout the hyper-chaos surrounding this process, it is the congressional progressives who have been the steadying hand of reason. After it became clear that Manchin was a hard “no” on spending $3.5 trillion on the Build Back Better Act, Democratic legislators began mulling the grim question of what to keep, and what to cut, from the bill in order to bring down its cost.

This was an impossible conundrum: Everything in the bill is important, and quite a lot of it is nothing short of life or death. Everyone with skin in the game was prepared to fight to the knife for their priorities, and the possibility of actual party immolation became more than just an easy headline with a print deadline looming. Talk of doing “fewer things well” had House members seething all over the building, while Republicans stood back and waited for the explosion.

Enter the Congressional Progressive Caucus with a wondrously simple solution: Chop the thing in half.

Instead of spending $3.5 trillion over ten years, spend $1.75 to $2 trillion over five years. Keep the bill mostly if not entirely intact, and set the programs to expire in half the time. The money should be good for the likes of Manchin. By the time the programs reach their expiration dates, ones that worked well will likely have enormous popular support, and can be extended. At a bare minimum, the country will get five years of policy geared toward helping people, and not toward making rich people even richer.

“We do believe that you can significantly cut down on the price tag by funding some of these programs for a shorter period of time,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal told CBS News. “Make sure that the benefits are universal and accrued to people immediately — not in three years or five years — but something that people can tangibly feel right away. And then deal with the extension of those programs down the road when people see how transformative they are.”

Speaker Pelosi appears to be on board with the idea, which suggests it is more than halfway home. The devil remains in the details, but this suggestion is an inspired, shrewd bit of dealmaking. The party would be foolish to reject it out of hand. They have more than two weeks to meet their self-imposed November deadline, at which point the other priorities will be teed up and waiting.

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