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Social Infrastructure Bill Has Been Gutted. Progressives May Not Let It Pass.

Democratic leadership wants the Congressional Progressive Caucus to “act like we’re winning,” even as they lose.

Sen. Joe Manchin mingles with guests before speaking during an event with the Economic Club of Washington at the Capitol Hilton Hotel on October 26, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

For those still playing along at home, still chasing the details of this long and ugly slog toward passage of a standard infrastructure bill and a second bill called the Build Back Better Act, this latest update brings grim tidings.

Due almost entirely to their own self-interest and devoted service to those who fund their campaigns, Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have managed to either kill or mortally wound multiple elements of the social infrastructure bill that would have dramatically improved the lives of millions. Many of those items had already been removed from the standard infrastructure bill, on the promise they would be included in the second bill. This was a lie.

Gone, or almost gone from the bill are vital new climate provisions that would force utilities to move to clean energy; a Medicare expansion that includes dental, vision and hearing coverage; prescription drug pricing reform that is vital to funding the bill itself; free community college; new taxes on the ultra-wealthy; and 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave.

Manchin and Sinema did this, with some backstopping from a few House Democrats deep in the pockets of the pharmaceutical industry. The Republicans barely had to get out of bed. “We’re still ‘no’ on everything,” they’ve occasionally reminded us as they sit back and watch the shit show unfold.

After days of relative silence as these provisions were stripped from the bill, Bernie Sanders and the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) — by far and away the most constructive and fair-handed players in this process — sounded a warning alarm: If the Medicare expansion and climate provisions are removed from the bill, despite numerous promises they would be included, there is no promise the 96-strong Caucus will vote to approve it.

Without their votes, the bill is almost certainly doomed in the House, as less than 10 Republican House members have indicated they will support it. The Congressional Progressive Caucus votes are the margin, and at present, that margin is in peril.

“Bottom line is that any reconciliation bill must include serious negotiations on the part of Medicare with the pharmaceutical industry, lower the cost of prescription drugs. That’s what the American people want,” Sanders said forcefully on Tuesday, adding that a “serious reconciliation bill must include expanding Medicare to cover dental, hearing aids and eyeglasses.”

“Progressives are fighting to tackle the climate crisis, expand Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing, and guarantee family leave in America,” tweeted progressive Rep. Ilhan Omar. “These are the investments major countries make in their communities and we can too.”

“Medicare treats your eyes, teeth, and ears like they’re not part of your body,” tweeted progressive Rep. Cori Bush. “It makes no sense. The Build Back Better Act currently expands Medicare to cover vision, dental, and hearing. We need to make sure that happens.”

The Democratic senator from West Virginia coal was unmoved.

“Sen. Joe Manchin on Monday shut down one of Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders’s biggest priorities, expanding Medicare, which Manchin warned would undermine the solvency of the broader program,” reports The Hill. “Sanders insisted in a tweet Saturday that his proposal to expand Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision must be included in a budget reconciliation package that is likely to come in well below the $3.5 trillion price tag Democratic leaders initially envisioned. But Manchin on Monday threw cold water on Sanders’s push to expand Medicare, warning the program faces insolvency in 2026.”

Manchin is also insisting the price tag for the social infrastructure bill be no higher than $1.5 trillion, a full $2 trillion less than the amount Sanders and the Congressional Progressive Caucus settled on after much compromise.

Because these are Democrats we are talking about, we are now required to cross the ever-treacherous span between the nauseating and the utterly surreal. On the far side of that chasm stand House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who have spent this entire endeavor watching Pelosi’s precious “moderate” Democrats gnaw through these bills like beavers.

At a historic crossroads that is nothing less than a genuine existential crisis, the speaker and the majority leader have watched as life-and-death provisions of these bills are chopped away by fellow Democrats chasing dollar signs around the building. Their advice to every Democrat in the face of this? Don’t worry, be happy!

“If we don’t act like we are winning, the American people won’t believe it either,” Hoyer reportedly told Democrats during a recent private meeting. Pelosi, for her part, has been telling her caucus that the contest is over, and the corporations have won again. “Embrace this,” she reportedly told the room during that same private meeting, “and have a narrative of success.”

Yes, of course, pretend to lead and have a “narrative of success” so people “believe we’re winning.” This is the politics of fiction, of cowardly lions with gavels and titles, all roar and no bite. That should have been the Democratic Party slogan since right about when Pelosi and Hoyer got involved in big-time politics. “Democrats: Pretending to Lead Since 1981, Because Reagan Was Scary and Republicans Say Mean Things.”

This is not entirely true, of course. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has from top to bottom fought the good fight since the beginning. If they could be criticized for anything, it is that they were credulous enough to believe the promise that those vital provisions stripped from the infrastructure bill would be revived in the Build Back Better Act.

Perhaps they should have chosen the infrastructure bill as their hill to die on, an immediate signal that compromising on such life-or-death provisions was unacceptable. That’s all hindsight, and besides, how much can the CPC do when the party’s leadership folds like a hotel laundromat?

Another twinkle of a bright spot: Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s wildly popular “two cents” campaign platform to tax the ultra-wealthy may become part of the Build Back Better Act, a replacement for the other taxation vehicles that were gutted from the bill. The idea being proposed is not exactly the same as hers, but it is a close cousin, and would do much to claw back some of the money Donald Trump gave away to his rich pals in December of 2017. Whether it survives the denuding process remains to be seen.

Soon, soon, Pelosi and company keep telling us. The bills will be ready for passage soon… but the Congressional Progressive Caucus may have something to say about that before the deal goes down. It’s a dirty business, and it’s not finished yet.

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