Talking Points

Biden and Pelosi call progressives' bluff

The White House's $1.75 trillion budget reconciliation is out, and make no mistake: Progressives got rolled.

Forget $10 trillion or $6 trillion. The $3.5 trillion package the most liberal Democrats in Congress thought was the compromise is now $1.75 trillion. Meanwhile, party leaders are pressing forward with the bipartisan infrastructure bill while all this is still unresolved. President Biden gave progressives half a loaf, but they see it as crumbs.

The question is what they'll do next. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) insists this version of Build Back Better "needs to be improved," while Missouri Rep. Cori Bush (D), more bluntly, says she feels "bamboozled." The Democratic majorities are so thin legislation can be defeated if only a handful of members go rogue, to say nothing of the whole Progressive Caucus. This fact has given moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) enormous influence on the process up to this point. Now it's time for lawmakers further left to flex their muscles. They will, and they speak for more Democrats than Manchin or Sinema, especially in deep blue districts.

But Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) still have one ace in the hole: As much as the progressives may talk like the Freedom Caucus, they don't define success the same way. The Freedom Caucus is often content to tank a bill and get nothing. Progressives don't work that way. Principled believers in activist government will have trouble saying no to modest spending increases if the alternative is nothing, and that's exactly the choice the White House has presented.

Democrats increasingly seem to realize this, however much they dislike it. "I don't think it's hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week," Biden said Wednesday. Top Democrats have shifted their tone on how much it matters that Biden is heading to international summits without having gotten much done through Congress at home. Only days ago, they were suggesting sophisticated Europeans would understand the legislative rough-and-tumble. Now they're conceding this stalemate is perhaps not a good look for American democracy.

Biden's prediction likely isn't hyperbole, but the democracy talk surely is: Progressives can't pass their full agenda because they don't have the votes. Still, this might be the kind of talk that will convince them to pass something. Biden sure hopes so.