The fate of President Biden’s signature legislative priority, a sweeping plan to invest trillions into infrastructure and the social safety net, rests on the ability of Democratic moderates and left-leaning progressives in the party to reach an agreement on the size and scope of the proposal.
At the center of the debate are centrist senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Both played a key role in bipartisan negotiations that led to a $1.2 trillion bill to fund improvements in physical infrastructure like roads and bridges, but have pushed back on a $3.5 trillion plan championed by progressives to fund “human infrastructure” like childcare, education and climate change mitigation.
Progressives in the House have insisted that the two bills be passed in tandem, and on Thursday they forced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to cancel a planned vote on the bipartisan package. But the 50-50 partisan split in the Senate means the more expensive human infrastructure bill — often called Build Back Better — can’t pass without support from both Manchin and Sinema.
Progressive leaders have conceded that the $3.5 trillion price tag for their plan will probably have to shrink. But the $1.5 trillion counteroffer Manchin released showed the distance between the two sides. Sinema has frustrated some of her more liberal colleagues by, according to their accounts, refusing to provide specifics of how large a plan she would be willing to back.
Why there’s debate
In practical terms, both groups are preventing infrastructure from passing — progressives by blocking the bipartisan infrastructure bill in the House, moderates by withholding support for Build Back Better in the Senate. But opinions differ on whether it’s moderates or progressives who are standing in the way of an agreement.
Many on the left have blamed Manchin and Sinema for the current stalemate. They argue that moderates are drastically underestimating the scale of investment that is needed to combat climate change and build up a resilient, equitable economy for the future. Manchin’s $1.5 proposal is “too small to get our priorities in,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. In the eyes of many progressives, holding up the smaller, bipartisan bill is the best way to use their leverage to ensure that the human infrastructure is large enough to address the country’s needs.
Moderates accuse progressives of being unreasonable, both on tactics and in the size of their proposals. Sinema said the refusal to allow a vote on the bipartisan bill was an “ineffective stunt” and accused her House colleagues of obstructing “crucial investments” in the nation’s infrastructure. Manchin called progressives’ $3.5 trillion plan “financial insanity.” Some expert observers agree, arguing that progressives should allow the bipartisan bill to move forward and accept that their Build Back Better plan is unreasonably ambitious given their slim legislative majorities.
Pelosi set a new deadline of Oct. 31 for the House to pass the $1.2 bipartisan bill, but added that she will not bring the legislation to the floor for a vote unless she’s sure it will pass. Separately, Democrats must also approve an increase to the debt ceiling — either on their own or with Republican support — before Oct. 18 to avoid a potential economic crash caused by the U.S. defaulting on its debts.
Voters want Democrats to go big
“What Democrats must fight above all are misrepresentations of the Build Back Better bill as some left-wing scheme. On the contrary, Biden’s proposals are a direct response to critiques often emanating from middle-of-the-road Democrats: that the party needs to spend less time on cultural issues and more on fighting for direct benefits to the working and middle classes, a cause that unites voters across racial and regional lines.” — E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post
Progressives are right use the leverage they have
“Blocking passage of an infrastructure bill important to moderates was the only leverage progressives had to ensure that moderates would not abandon the second, more far-reaching bill. … All Manchin and Sinema offered was a willingness to keep talking. Ultimately, however, that might be enough.” — Russell Berman, Atlantic
Sinema has refused to make an offer for progressives to negotiate off of
“What remains a mystery is what Sinema will ultimately ask for. Her enigmatic approach has led to widespread Democratic fury. The frustration is only aggravated by the fact that in a 50-50 Senate, there is no alternative but to come to terms with her.” — E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post
Shrinking Build Back Better to appease moderates would be a mistake
“If progressives end up with two-thirds of a loaf, or even half, obviously they should take it. But I hope it does not work out that way. This is not the time for centrist Democrats to nickel-and-dime their own president’s vision, or to worry about their donors or reelection prospects.” — Jill Lawrence, USA Today
Progressives have shown a willingness to compromise, moderates haven’t
“The progressives are begging the centrists to meet them somewhere in the middle. The centrists — really, just the tiny handful of holdouts — are refusing to negotiate, threatening to torpedo the entire Biden presidency if they don’t get exactly what they want.” — Jonathan Chait, New York
Progressives don’t appreciate how big 1.5 trillion is
“The ongoing debate about the infrastructure bill is opaque, confusing, and Byzantine, and consists mostly of progressive Democrats losing their minds with rage that a West Virginia Democrat wants to spend ‘only’ $1.5 trillion.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review
The American people don’t want trillions of dollars in social safety net spending
“The real issue progressives need to face is that they simply don’t have the political support they think they do. Once you step away from the loud liberal tweeters, the Democratic Party — and the electorate in general — does not support the progressive agenda.” — Keith Naughton, The Hill
There’s no excuse for not passing the bipartisan bill right away
“Democrats could have had a popular legislative win with a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. … Now they’ve got nothing and may very likely end up with nothing — a classic case of two birds in the bush instead of one in hand. And Biden is going along with it! It’s political malpractice.” — Bret Stephens, New York Times
Moderates have every right to push back on legislation they don’t like
“When a party [vilified] its moderates, questions a lawmakers loyalty for not voting in lockstep, threatens their future … trust me, bad things happen. Democrats’ obvious frustration and desperation aside, Sinema is doing her job. Let her.” — SE Cupp, CNN
Without Manchin’s ability to win elections in a deep-red state, Biden’s agenda would already be dead
“How does Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sound to you, Manchin haters? Not great, I bet? Well Saint Joe is the one man standing between you and Majority Leader Mitch doing everything in his power to tank the Biden agenda.” — Tim Miller, Bulwark