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Why progressives still aren’t voting for the infrastructure bill

It’s the only leverage they have to guarantee that the social spending bill moves forward.

Representative Pramila Jayapal stands outside speaking to reporters.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said members would vote down an infrastructure bill if it came to the floor on Thursday.
Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) have demanded major cuts to Democrats’ Build Back Better bill, a large climate and social spending package that’s been in the works for months. Progressives fear further cuts — and some worry the bill might be abandoned altogether — if Manchin and Sinema can’t be compelled to accept the $1.75 trillion spending proposal currently on offer.

Their strategy to pin the senators down was on display Thursday, when the Congressional Progressive Caucus refused to move forward on a bipartisan infrastructure bill without a simultaneous vote on Democrats’ larger social spending bill. Because House Democrats have a narrow three-person margin, any major defections can sink legislation.

Progressive members have for weeks demanded that the votes on the two bills be held together. They worry that Manchin and Sinema — who back the infrastructure package — could completely abandon the budget bill should infrastructure advance on its own, given their longstanding opposition to the size of the measure and to several of the policies it contains.

To ensure the two senators support the spending package, progressives are using the bipartisan bill as leverage: In order to pass one, Democrats need to get on board with passing the other as well. Tying the two votes together is also a way to prevent moderate lawmakers from whittling down the spending bill even further. The sooner moderates agree to the latest spending proposal numbers, the sooner they’ll get their vote on infrastructure.

“Congress needs to finish the job and bring both bills to a vote together,” the Congressional Progressive Caucus wrote in a statement explaining their stance. “There is too much at stake for working families and our communities to settle for something that can be later misunderstood, amended, or abandoned altogether.”

Progressive pressure on Thursday secured an infrastructure vote delay, which marked a win for them. It also followed a loss: The latest version of the spending bill, which progressives have announced they’d accept, includes some serious cuts. The plan, released by the White House Thursday, doesn’t include many of their key priorities, including paid family leave and Medicare’s ability to negotiate prescription drug prices.

Despite this, they appear to have now decided to take what they can. They want Manchin and Sinema to do the same and hope to use what leverage they have into making sure they do so.

What progressives hope to gain in the next week

Progressives called for the infrastructure vote delay for two reasons: They wanted specifics about the text of the social spending legislation, and they wanted direct assurances from Manchin and Sinema that they’d vote to pass the social spending bill.

A core issue at play is a lack of trust: Because of how many cuts Manchin and Sinema have already demanded to key Democratic priorities (including reducing prescription drug prices, increases to the corporate tax rate, and eliminating the Clean Energy Performance Program), progressives are wary of their support for the Biden framework. Additionally, neither senator has publicly said they support the framework. That has progressives concerned since Democrats have approved a budget resolution framework before only to have the legislation itself stall.

“I don’t owe them my trust, and they don’t owe me theirs,” Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) said in an MSNBC interview. “Let us see the vote. ... That’s how we know where you stand.”

Progressives’ concerns weren’t assuaged after the release of President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion framework for the legislation. While the CPC publicly endorsed the measure in principle, both Manchin and Sinema issued positive statements about negotiations without any concrete commitments.

“As we work through the text of the legislation, I would hope all of us will continue to deal in good faith and do what is right for the future of the American people,” Manchin said in a statement.

“I look forward to getting this done, expanding economic opportunities and helping everyday families get ahead,” Sinema said in a separate statement.

Progressives want a guarantee that all Democratic senators are actually on board with this bill, and that Manchin or Sinema won’t blow up the framework. They’ve already seen this process play out once: Democrats in both the House and the Senate passed a $3.5 trillion budget resolution, but both moderates balked at moving forward with that price tag and many of its components.

“We need to have certainty, either through legislative text, through … agreements … that we can trust,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told reporters Thursday.

The caucus’s demand for legislative text has led to results. In an effort to convince progressives to consider a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the House Rules Committee released 1,700 pages of tentative text on Thursday. That text didn’t wind up being enough for a vote because, as with the framework, Manchin and Sinema have yet to agree to it.

Jayapal noted Thursday that progressives would support adding policies back into the legislation that were stripped out of Biden’s framework, like paid family leave and Medicare expansion provisions. She said, however, that progressive support for the framework was not contingent on these additions and that they stood behind the endorsement they’ve made.

Progressives won and lost this week

Thursday marked the second time progressives successfully blocked a vote on infrastructure over concerns about the spending bill. This time, they faced increased pressure from congressional leaders to reverse their position, in order to send Biden off to his coming G20 climate meetings with a legislative win to tout.

But the caucus held firm.

Originally, progressives had identified five broad areas where they wanted investments: the care economy, affordable housing, climate jobs, a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients, and reductions to prescription drug prices. The original $3.5 trillion version of the spending bill included many of these issues, but because of Manchin’s and Sinema’s concerns, multiple areas were significantly cut back or dropped entirely.

Biden’s new $1.75 trillion framework ultimately invests heavily in early childhood education and climate but does not include a major provision to help reduce prescription drug prices, a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients, or paid family leave.

And areas that survived cuts still saw dramatic reductions in spending. For example, Democrats’ original budget measure contained $450 billion for long-term home care and $332 billion for affordable housing. Biden’s framework, meanwhile, includes $150 billion for the former and $150 billion for the latter.

Sinema has opposed Democrats’ more expansive proposals to reduce prescription drug prices — but agreed to a narrower option that includes a smaller pool of drugs. A pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients also isn’t expected to make it into the legislation because of the rules governing the budget reconciliation process and the Senate parliamentarian’s existing ruling advising against its inclusion. And paid family leave has run into opposition from Manchin, who’s worried that the policy would be too burdensome for businesses.

Biden’s framework still has about $100 billion allocated for immigration reform, though it’s unclear whether it will make it past this procedural hurdle. Democrats’ latest pitch to the parliamentarian will focus on issues like the legal visa backlog and a shield from deportation for some unauthorized immigrants, the New York Times reports. Lawmakers are also still finagling some of the details for the bill, leaving the door open for the possible return of some policies.

Progressives back the framework even with the existing omissions. In its current state, it includes several of their demands on child care subsidies, funding for clean energy tax credits, and a Civilian Climate Corps. Additionally, they argue that the talks on the bill wouldn’t have even happened without the pressure they’ve put on Democratic leadership and moderate lawmakers.

“The reality is that while talks around the infrastructure bill lasted months in the Senate, there has only been serious discussion around the specifics of the larger Build Back Better Act in recent weeks, thanks to the Progressive Caucus holding the line and putting both parts of the agenda back on the table,” the CPC said.

Although they are standing their ground on legislation timing, they appear willing to accept the policy concessions that have already been made. “We wanted a $3.5 trillion package, but we understand the reality of the situation,” said Jayapal.

Correction, November 1, 12:20 pm: An earlier version of this story misstated Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s position on prescription drug price negotiations. It’s been corrected to reflect that she has agreed to a narrower option for price reductions.