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Bernie to House Progressives: Don’t Back Down

It's do-or-die time for the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. So Bernie Sanders is rightly insisting that House progressives reject the bipartisan infrastructure bill until it's linked to the reconciliation bill's passage.

Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to reporters in Washington, DC, 2021. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

House progressives gathered privately on Tuesday afternoon and recommitted to blocking any effort to split the bipartisan infrastructure bill away from the broader reconciliation package, which includes the bulk of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.

The pledge comes after Speaker Nancy Pelosi threatened Monday to de-link the two, risking key elements of the Biden agenda. According to a public whip count, twenty-four House progressives have stated their commitment to vote against the infrastructure bill unless it is passed with the reconciliation bill. During the meeting, at least ten members of Congress not on the list also spoke in support of the strategy, pledging to vote no on Thursday if the bipartisan bill comes to the floor, two sources on the call said.

In response to questions from the American Prospect, the Intercept, and the Daily Poster, a handful of other Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) members, including Representatives Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) pronounced themselves on the fence leading up to the Thursday infrastructure vote.

In the meeting, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN), the whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told members that she had just been on the phone with Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent-VT) who warned that if progressives let the bipartisan bill go through, the Senate is unlikely to pass the reconciliation package. Two Democrats serving in swing districts made the same argument on the call, suggesting that anybody who believed the Senate would pass the reconciliation bill without its hand being forced was fooling themselves, and would wind up with no concrete achievements to run on for reelection.

On the call, more than two dozen members spoke, with not a single one saying they would vote yes on the bipartisan bill. Representative Katie Porter of California, a so-called “frontliner” who represents a swing district, urged other frontliners to see the political upside in getting both pieces through, arguing that the reconciliation package would deliver immediate benefits. “Those are things that will immediately begin to improve the lives of Americans and will begin to immediately improve our economy,” Porter told the Washington Post in an interview Tuesday, making a similar point. “Democratic members, regardless of your district’s composition, this is what voters want.”

After the meeting, Sanders made his position public.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), asked about Sanders’s position, told reporters on Capitol Hill she agreed with it. “We had a deal,” she said accurately, referring to the party’s two-track strategy that some centrists are working to upend.

Porter told the Post she would oppose the infrastructure bill Thursday “if there’s not a framework and an agreement on how we move forward.” Other progressives, including Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA), have referred to such a “framework,” which could be the way Pelosi pushes through an infrastructure bill without completing reconciliation. But relying merely on a framework and an agreement risks sacrificing leverage without a guarantee both bills will move forward.

Meanwhile, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has refused to even offer a top-line spending figure for the reconciliation bill, even after Biden asked him for one in a White House meeting last week. Without an agreement on how much spending Manchin can tolerate, there’s no chance for anything resembling a framework.

Pelosi, asked about Sanders encouraging Democrats to oppose the bill, suggested that she was not pressuring members to vote yes on it. “Everybody has to do what they have to do and I respect that,” she said. “We’re doing our work.” There’s no evidence Pelosi is actively whipping her caucus on the issue.

In June, when Biden split his infrastructure proposals into two separate bills in order to win bipartisan support, Pelosi promised that the bipartisan infrastructure bill would not be brought to a vote in the House without the reconciliation bill. On Monday, the speaker walked back that promise, saying in a caucus meeting that the infrastructure bill would be brought to a floor vote on Thursday, citing an obscure and flexible highway funding deadline.

But with twenty-four representatives committed publicly to voting against the infrastructure bill on Thursday, and at least ten more committed privately, Pelosi won’t have the 218 needed to pass the bill. Republican House leadership is whipping members against the legislation, and even if the eight House Republicans who claim they will vote for the bill do so, it still won’t have majority support.

“We remain fully committed to passing President Biden’s entire Build Back Better agenda and delivering the transformative change that people throughout this country urgently want, need, and deserve. Moving forward without the Build Back Better Act would put long-overdue investments in child care, paid leave, health care, affordable housing, pre-k, community college, climate action, and a roadmap to citizenship for Dreamers, TPS [Temporary Protected Status] recipients, and essential workers at risk,” said CPC chair Representative Pramila Jayapal in a statement after Tuesday’s caucus meeting.

Pelosi had told a group of corporate Democrats led by Representative Josh Gottheimer that the infrastructure bill would receive a vote by Monday, September 27, but decided to delay until Thursday because it didn’t have the votes to pass.

Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR), chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, is tasked with managing the infrastructure bill on the House floor, but is also a Progressive Caucus member and has trashed the bipartisan bill repeatedly in recent days to reporters. When asked about his vote, a spokesperson for DeFazio replied, “I think the Chairman’s words speak for themselves. In fact, he’s managing the bill on the House floor right now.” But he praised the bill as historic on the floor, leaving his position inscrutable.