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Congress’s Democrat-on-Democrat hostage standoff, explained

Nancy Pelosi had a plan to box in Senate moderates. But some House moderates are rebelling.

Pelosi, in a dark pink suit, white blouse, and colorful cloth mask, speaks emphatically into a microphone in front of the US and House of Representatives flags.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is trying to play hardball.
Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

On the surface, the latest dispute between moderate Democrats and party leaders in Congress seems trivial. It’s about which of Biden’s two big bills will move forward first in the US House. Will it be the bipartisan infrastructure deal, which passed the Senate earlier this month? Or will it be the coming Democrat-only “mega-bill”, containing trillions in spending on health care, anti-poverty programs, climate, and more?

But the standoff — and a potential showdown this week — could have massive implications for President Joe Biden’s agenda.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said since June that the mega-bill, in which progressives are placing their hopes for major change, must move forward before she’ll act on the far less sweeping bipartisan infrastructure deal.

But nine moderate House Democrats, led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), are now demanding that the order be flipped. And they say they won’t support a budget vote this week unless their demands are met.

This is about much more than just timing, though. The fight is really about who will have the most leverage in shaping the still-unwritten mega-bill, which aims to enact much of Biden’s agenda in one fell swoop — and about whether it will pass at all.

Two hostages

Progressives have feared all year that, if the bipartisan infrastructure bill is signed into law, moderate Democrats might just decide to call it a day. That is, after all, the bill that Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin helped shape and deeply care about. The fear was that those moderates might end up killing progressives’ beloved mega-bill altogether, or very severely scaling it back.

That’s why Pelosi, spurred by House progressives, announced in June that until the Senate passed the mega-bill, the House would take no action on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. She was basically taking Senate moderates’ precious deal hostage, to make sure they’d play ball with progressive priorities. President Biden has given tacit (and, initially, explicit) approval to this strategy.

The coming mega-bill will advance through a special process called budget reconciliation (which allows it to bypass the Senate filibuster, and pass with a simple majority). But to unlock that process, Congress first needs to pass what’s called a budget resolution. The Senate did that earlier this month, and Pelosi called back the House to do their part this week.

But then things hit a snag when some of Pelosi’s own moderate Democrats in the US House decided to take a hostage of their own. Rep. Gottheimer and eight other Democrats released a letter saying they would not vote for the budget resolution until the House passes the bipartisan infrastructure deal. That is: they’ve taken their own hostage, and are demanding Pelosi let the previous hostage go.

Democrats’ House majority is currently so narrow that, if four of their members defect and vote with Republicans, they can vote down a bill. So if Gottheimer’s group sticks to its guns, they could get their way. It is, however, possible that a deal of some sort will still be reached.

This is really about leverage

Of course, this isn’t just a petty squabble over who’s first in line. This battle is really about two groups — progressives and moderates — trying to maximize their leverage in shaping the coming, still-unwritten mega-bill.

Democrats have allotted $3.5 trillion for this bill and have a rough plan for where it will go, but nothing is really set in stone yet, and many questions remain. Will the overall amount have to be cut substantially, as Sinema is demanding? Will plans to spend on various areas have to be jettisoned? If so, what will get the heave — subsidized child care? Universal pre-K? The expanded child tax credit? Expanded Medicare benefits? How will the climate portions of the bill end up when they have to go through Manchin’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee?

Both progressives and moderates want to try and maximize their leverage to ensure those and many more questions are resolved to their liking. And there are two ways to try and shape a piece of legislation. You can ask nicely, or you can play hardball — threatening that you’ll vote no if you don’t get what you want.

Anyone can make threats. The question is whose threats actually come off as credible. Generally, threats to kill a bill seem most credible from those who would have political reasons for doing so (like Manchin, who represents a state Trump won by nearly 39 points), or those with a history of defying leadership (like the late John McCain on the Republican side, whom Sinema seems to be trying to channel).

Typically it’s moderate Democrats who tend to be the toughest gets, holding out until the last minute. It’s often believed that progressives will just go along, because from their perspective, passing something — anything — is better than passing nothing.

But in this era of a polarized partisan Congress, politics is a team sport, with strong incentives even for moderates to support their president’s top legislative priorities. So sometimes, the moderates basically end up getting rolled. Leaders can cater to the base and gamble that moderates will cave in the end, perhaps with some minor face-saving changes, for fear of infuriating the base and making their party’s president look like a failure. (Whether this succeeds depends on the particular issue and the particular politicians it involves.)

Pelosi supercharged that latter dynamic by taking the bipartisan infrastructure bill hostage. For one, that’s a bill the moderates are most eager to pass, and that progressives don’t particularly care about. But even more importantly, Pelosi’s move means that Biden’s whole agenda depends on whether moderates and progressives can reach agreement on the mega-bill. So the moderates’ threat to kill it comes off as less credible, since they’d be making President Biden a failure.

That’s the theory anyway — though Sinema is trying to debunk it. Her spokesperson told Politico Monday that “proceedings in the U.S. House will have no impact” on her views about the mega-bill, and reiterated that its current spending level is too high.

In other words: keep the hostage as long as you want. She’ll wait.