If President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill dies in Congress, it will be because moderate Democrats killed it.
Over the past month, those moderates have put themselves at the center of negotiations over the $3.5 trillion proposal (doled out over 10 years) for new programs, investments and social spending. And they have made demands that threaten to derail the bill — and the rest of Biden’s agenda with it.
In the House last week, a group of moderate Democrats successfully opposed a measure that would allow direct government negotiation of drug prices and help pay for the bill. One of the most popular items in the entire Democratic agenda — and a key campaign promise in the 2018 and 2020 elections — federal prescription drug negotiation was supposed to be a slam dunk. But the moderates say it would hurt innovation from drugmakers. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has likewise announced her opposition to direct government negotiation of the price of prescription drugs.
Similarly, a different group of moderate Democrats hopes to break the agreement between Democratic leadership and congressional progressives to link the Senate-negotiated bipartisan infrastructure bill to Biden’s “Build Back Better” proposal, which would be passed under the reconciliation process to avoid a filibuster by Senate Republicans.
The point of the agreement was to win buy-in from all sides by tying the fate of one bill to the other. Either moderates and progressives get what they want, or no one does. Progressive Democrats have held their end of the bargain. But moderates are threatening to derail both bills if they don’t get a vote on infrastructure before the end of the month. “If they delay the vote — or it goes down — then I think you can kiss reconciliation goodbye,” Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon, one of the moderates, told Politico. “Reconciliation would be dead.”
Of course, if the House were to vote on and pass the infrastructure bill before reconciliation was completed, there is a strong chance those moderates would leave the table altogether. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, for example, wants to table the reconciliation bill.
“Instead of rushing to spend trillions on new government programs and additional stimulus funding, Congress should hit a strategic pause on the budget-reconciliation legislation,” Manchin wrote earlier this month.
Moderate Democrats want Biden to sign the bipartisan infrastructure bill. But it seems clear that they will take nothing if it means they can trim progressive sails in the process, despite the fact that many of the items in the “Build Back Better” bill are the most popular parts of the entire Democratic agenda.
Here, it’s worth making a larger point. In the popular understanding of American politics, the term “moderate” or “centrist” usually denotes a person who supports the aims and objectives of his or her political party but prefers a less aggressive and more incremental approach. It is the difference between a progressive or liberal Democrat who wants to expand health coverage with a new, universal program (“Medicare for All”) and one who wants to do the same by building on existing policies, one step at a time.
Moderates, it’s commonly believed, have a better sense of the American electorate and thus a better sense of the possible. And if they can almost always count on favorable and flattering coverage from the political press, it is because their image is that of the “grown-ups” of American politics, whose hard-nosed realism and deference to public opinion stands in contrast to the fanciful dreams of their supposedly more out-of-touch colleagues.
Given this picture of the ideological divide within parties, a casual observer might assume that, in the struggle to move Biden’s agenda through Congress, the chief obstacle (beyond Republican opposition) is the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and its demands for bigger, more ambitious programs. Biden was, after all, not their first choice for president. Or their second. He won the Democratic presidential nomination over progressive opposition, and there was a sense on the left, throughout the campaign, that Biden was not (and would not be) ready to deal with the scale of challenges ahead of him or the country.
But that casual observer would be wrong. Progressives have been critical of Biden, especially on immigration and foreign affairs. On domestic policy, however, they have been strong team players; partners in pushing the president’s priorities through Congress. The reconciliation bill, for instance, is as much the work of Bernie Sanders as it was of the White House. As chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders guided the initial budget resolution through the chamber, compromising on his priorities in order to build consensus with other Democrats in the Senate.
Progressive Democrats want the bill to pass, even if it isn’t as large as they would like. They believe, correctly, that a win for Biden is a win for them. Moderate Democrats, however, seem to think that their success depends on their distance from the president and his progressive allies. Their obstruction might hurt Biden, but, they seem to believe, it won’t hurt them.
This is nonsense. Democrats will either rise together in next year’s elections or they will fall together. The best approach, given the strong relationship between presidential popularity and a party’s midterm performance, is to put as much of Biden’s agenda into law as possible by whatever means possible.
But this would demand a more unapologetically partisan approach, and that is where the real divide between moderates and progressives emerges. Moderate and centrist Democrats seem to value a bipartisan process more than they do any particular policy outcome or ideological goal.
The most charitable explanation is that they believe that their constituents value displays of bipartisanship more than any new law or benefit. A less charitable explanation is that they see bipartisanship as a way to clip the wings of Democratic Party ambition and save themselves from taking votes that might put them in conflict with either voters or donors.
What is true of both explanations is that they show the extent to which moderate Democrats have made a fetish of bipartisan displays and anti-partisan feeling. And in doing so, they reveal that they are most assuredly not the adults in the room of American politics.
There is nothing serious about an obsession with the most superficial aspects of process over actual policy and nothing savvy about leaving real problems unaddressed in order to score points with some imagined referee.