President Biden's domestic policy legacy looks likely to be determined largely by two bills that are before Congress. The pandemic rescue package passed back in March was significant, but most of that has already expired or will do so soon. Meanwhile, a $566 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill has passed the Senate and is before the House, and more importantly, a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill is working its way through the Senate. If passed, these two bills would give Biden the most significant record of domestic accomplishment since Lyndon Johnson.
Yet a small handful of conservative Democrats (who have been dubbed the "Suicide Squad") appear bound and determined to blow up Biden's presidency. They threaten that if the House does not immediately pass the bipartisan bill, they will vote against the reconciliation bill — with the clear intention of radically scaling it back, if not tanking it altogether. It's a wildly irresponsible betrayal of their own party and president.
Remember, the reason Biden, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and the rest of the party leadership have settled on a "two-track" strategy of getting both the infrastructure bill and reconciliation through the Senate before passing either through the House is the party's tiny margin of control — just three seats in the House and none in the Senate — and distrust between the party's left and right wings.
In particular, progressives understandably fear that if conservative Democrats get what they want in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, they will refuse to pass the best parts of the reconciliation proposal (which includes sizable health-care reforms, welfare state expansions, climate policy, and other goodies). Hence it is best to iron out all the compromises between the various factions in one big pot of legislation, and then pass it all at the same time, so as to minimize the risk of defections.
Led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, the Suicide Squad presented an argument for their position in a short op-ed at The Washington Post, which bears close examination. They say the reason the infrastructure bill must pass immediately is because America simply can't wait a single moment longer to start repairs, and that it's illegitimate to hold the bill hostage:
Across this country, far too many communities are struggling with crumbling roads and structurally unsound bridges, outrageous congestion, lead-coated pipes and no broadband access. You don't hold up a major priority of the country, and millions of jobs, as some form of leverage. The infrastructure bill is not a political football. [The Washington Post]
The point about time is completely preposterous. State and local governments are already in decent shape in terms of funding for urgent infrastructure repairs and upgrades, thanks to the American Rescue Plan in March which allocated $350 billion to them in part for this purpose. Even if there was a dire need to spend, infrastructure notoriously takes forever to get going — you've got to pick projects, draw up plans, do environmental impact studies, and on and on. As Jeff Stein and Michael Laris write at the Post, just $20 billion of the $566 billion in the plan is estimated to be allocated before the end of the 2022 fiscal year, and fully three-quarters after the 2024 election. There is absolutely no reason why this can't wait a couple more months, and even making this argument is evidence of bad faith motives.
The squalling about holding infrastructure "hostage," meanwhile, is truly Trumpian hypocrisy. The Suicide Squad are explicitly doing exactly that in the opposite direction. They are taking reconciliation hostage as a form of leverage. They are using Biden's most ambitious proposals — which are far more important than the bipartisan bill — as a political football.
Russell Berman at The Atlantic actually pointed this out to Gottheimer in a recent interview: "Aren't you doing the same thing? Aren't you holding a hostage yourself in return by holding up the budget resolution and saying you're not going to vote for that until the infrastructure bill passes?" Gottheimer could muster nothing but inept dissembling in response. "No, not at all, because they've announced for months that they're not going to bring infrastructure to the floor. For months, many of my colleagues have said they won't vote for the infrastructure package if they don't get what they want in the reconciliation package," Gottheimer replied. "I've literally said to my colleagues, 'Let's vote on the infrastructure bill, and then, like, 15 minutes later we can start debate on the budget resolution and vote on it the next day.'"
So the progressives are despicable hostage-takers because they won't vote on infrastructure before they get what they want, but Gottheimer is not because he'll vote on reconciliation after he gets what he wants. Makes perfect sense: If they just ransom the hostage, he will no longer have a hostage.
Moreover, as Jonathan Chait points out at New York, Gottheimer and company are simultaneously complaining about the large size of the reconciliation bill while demanding large tax cuts for the rich, like a restoration of the deduction for state and local taxes, and forestalling increases in the capital gains tax. We should expect nothing less from politicians so heavily funded by oil, pharmaceutical, and private equity companies.
So it's not hard to see what's going on here. The Suicide Squad is using high-stakes tactics to try to extract maximum possible concessions for their big money donors. Not content with whatever they might be able to negotiate out of the unified process (which would certainly be considerable), they are taking Biden's baby hostage to destroy progressives' leverage, in all probability so they can kill the baby without progressives being able to retaliate.
But Gottheimer and company have scooted themselves far out on a thin political branch. They are not just confronting the party's tiny socialist wing, but a solid majority of the entire caucus, plus the president and the party leadership in Congress. Many moderates are not on board with these kind of extreme tactics used against their own party. As Ryan Grim and Sara Sirota report at The Intercept, Gottheimer is deeply unpopular among congressional Democrats, and Pelosi seems to think she can count votes better than he can. The party's left flank should keep staring down the Suicide Squad and force them to be team players.