WASHINGTON — U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she wanted a vote on the infrastructure bill on Thursday, and as I write this late in the day no one is sure if it will happen because there are enough progressives — including Illinois Reps. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Jan Schakowsky — to block its passage.
Pelosi holds the chamber by a sliver; she can only lose three Democratic votes. In the Senate, Democrats can drop zero votes.
There are 95 members in the Congressional Progressive Caucus with three of those Democrats from Illinois. All three are in leadership.
Garcia is a vice chairman at large; Schakowsky is an executive board member at large. Freshman Rep. Marie Newman is a vice chair for communications, though she didn’t want to say anything on Thursday.
Newman wants to stay out of this high-stakes fray. Her spokesman, Patrick Mullane, said she has not stated her position “one way or the other” because negotiations are so fluid.
It’s important to say upfront the progressives are not against the policies and spending outlined in the bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate passed.
At issue for the progressives is using the infrastructure bill — funding for roads, bridges, public transit, airports — as leverage to get a larger spending measure passed first in the Senate.
The progressives want to hold the infrastructure bill hostage to win a guarantee of a Senate vote for a $3.5 trillion budget bill containing Medicare expansion; prescription drug and dental coverage; child and elder care; immigration reform; climate change programs and other social safety net provisions that are the heart of President Joe Biden’s agenda.
They want the bills passed in tandem.
How does this leverage work? Why the Democratic infighting? Why are two Democratic senators holding the Biden “Build Back Better” agenda by the throat?
At the heart of this threat to the success of the Biden presidency are two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin from West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona.
Manchin, in the Senate since November 2010, is seen by some colleagues as coldly calculating, but he has a price; he knows what he wants from the deal. This is the first time in the limelight for Sinema, sworn into office in January 2019. She is flailing.
Manchin and Sinema do not support the $3.5 trillion measure — also called the reconciliation bill — in part because of the price tag. They have more objections, and they have been in White House meetings because for the moment, the world here revolves around these two selfish senators.
Why do they have so much influence? There are zero Senate Republicans who will vote for the $3.5 trillion measure, even if it is significantly trimmed.
Manchin and Sinema hold so much power because in the 50-50 Senate, all the Democrats must stick together.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is urging House progressives to vote down the infrastructure bill if need be.
Progressive Democrats do not trust Manchin and Sinema. They believe if the infrastructure bill is voted on first in the House — remember it passed the Senate already — then Manchin and Sinema will ditch the budget, or reconciliation bill, and leave it to die in the Senate.
Garcia spent part of Thursday lobbying progressives to hold the line so they don’t lose leverage with Manchin and Sinema.
Garcia told me when we talked in the morning, without first getting some guarantee about the path forward, “I’d say at least half the caucus would probably vote against the bill.”
I asked Garcia if hanging tough makes sense given the Democrats may lose the House and Senate in 2022. “All those things hang in the balance and by a very thin thread,” Garcia said.
Garcia and Schakowsky are open to negotiations to lower the $3.5 trillion price tag.
The Senate has to vote on the reconciliation bill first, said Schakowsky, because “we do not have confidence that there will be a follow-up vote on the reconciliation bill that does so much for so many people in this country.”
Schakowsky met Sinema when she was first elected to the House in 2012. She identified as a progressive, said Schakowsky, but then voted against an immigration bill in one of her first votes. She “then literally came crying to me, ‘Oh, I had to do that.’ ”
“I said, ‘No, you did not need to do that.’ And it went downhill from there.”
Turned out there was no House vote Thursday night. The House reconvenes Friday. Said Schakowsky: “My fallback position for the past few weeks has been, don’t bet against Nancy Pelosi.”