In January 2017, when Rep. Josh Gottheimer was a first-term Democrat representing a wealthy northern New Jersey district, he had an invitation to the 80th birthday party for a senior member of his state’s delegation. The region Rep. Bill Pascrell represented abutted Gottheimer’s, but it couldn’t have been more socioeconomically different, containing the working-class city of Paterson and a stretch of the Jersey Shore. Pascrell was hosting the party at a favorite hometown bar in Paterson, something of a dive on the outskirts of town called Duffy’s.
Paterson wasn’t the type of area where Gottheimer spent much time, but it wasn’t an actively dangerous spot. Not only was the bar a regular haunt of the local congressional representative, it was owned by Terry Duffy, a town freeholder, the state’s version of a city council member.
Gottheimer agreed to brave the journey to Paterson to celebrate his colleague. But when he arrived, it was clear that he’d taken a confounding set of precautions: Gottheimer was accompanied by an off-duty police officer and showed an unusual amount of bulk under his shirt.
“Are you wearing a bulletproof vest?” Pascrell asked his first-term colleague. Gottheimer acknowledged that he was but went on to say, by way of explanation, that he had been doing a ride-along earlier with the officer and had worn the vest as a result. The explanation, even were it true, failed to explain why he was still wearing the vest at the party. A round of heckling and wisecracking ensued, drawing the attention of Terry Duffy.
The freeholder was not amused. He threw Gottheimer out of his bar.
Gottheimer’s foray into Democratic caucus politics this week wasn’t much better thought out and didn’t end much differently than his foray into Paterson. After Senate Democrats approved both a $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill on August 11, along with a budget resolution instructing Senate committees to write a $3.5 trillion package that would be passed using the rules of reconciliation — meaning that Republicans couldn’t filibuster it — Gottheimer announced a demand for an “immediate” vote on the infrastructure bill. That day, he got eight other Democrats to join him in signing a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi outlining the demand. The dark-money organization No Labels, funded by a bipartisan set of billionaires and millionaires with opaque policy interests, soon began calling them the “unbreakable nine.”
On Monday night, Gottheimer succeeded in holding together his rebellion and even gained another dissident in Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla. This forced Pelosi to pull a vote on the resolution, which was bundled with a procedural vote on the infrastructure package and a voting rights measure. But by Tuesday morning, the resistance was broken. The demand for an immediate vote was placated by a promise of a vote by September 27.
The jockeying by Gottheimer was the latest effort by conservative Democrats to regain leverage over a process that has gotten away from them. The first effort to do so was the bipartisan deal itself. Though that legislation, which picked up 19 Republican votes in the Senate, is heralded as evidence that the Senate can still work despite the obstacle of the filibuster, it was the threat of passing a major piece of legislation via reconciliation — requiring a margin of 50 votes only — that galvanized the bipartisan crew to get to a deal. The hope was that the latter deal would drain support for the former. That didn’t happen, and Democrats pushed ahead with their $3.5 trillion project.
In an interview with Punchbowl News, Gottheimer said he wanted to pass the infrastructure bill quickly to get “shovels in the ground,” but his real motive became clear as negotiations unfolded. Pelosi offered the Gottheimer rebels a vote on the infrastructure bill by October 1, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, suggested that the House could finish work on its final reconciliation package by then. It would be a tall order, but not impossible. Seeking to win back the leverage the conservative faction had recently lost, the Gottheimer group then shifted its demand to sometime earlier in September.
Gottheimer and his allies’ true motivation for insisting on an earlier vote was always baffling, according to Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. “I honestly really don’t [know] because we cannot spend infrastructure money until after the new fiscal year,” said Schakowsky, who serves in the Democratic Party’s leadership as senior chief deputy whip. “I’m mystified,” she said. “I can’t figure this out.”
Earlier on Monday, Democratic leaders painted a bleak picture of the consequences if enough lawmakers were to side with Gottheimer against the rest of their party. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland warned the caucus that defections would result in “mutually assured destruction.” That could be disastrous for the party’s agenda, because if Democrats lose their majority in 2022, they may not get it back “for 40 years,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C.
The $3.5 trillion bill is the legislative vehicle that Democrats are using to pass President Joe Biden’s most ambitious goals: a Medicare expansion to include hearing, vision, and dental; paid family leave; universal preK3 and preK4; an extension of the child tax credit to 2025; and billions of dollars for clean energy and other climate initiatives. With Republicans in stark opposition, Democrats are relying on the budget reconciliation process that allows Congress to pass spending and revenue measures with a simple majority.
Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Pelosi can hardly afford any desertions since Democrats hold a slight majority in the House and Senate. Anticipating hesitation from centrists, they devised a two-track strategy to attach the $3.5 trillion package to a smaller bipartisan infrastructure bill that funds new projects for roads and bridges that moderates have long championed.
While Gottheimer may have won a face-saving victory by securing a date, his win didn’t change the underlying dynamic that gave progressives leverage in the first place: Pelosi can promise Gottheimer a vote, and might even deliver on it, but she can’t promise enough votes to pass the bill. Democrats in the Congressional Progressive Caucus have pledged to oppose the infrastructure bill if reconciliation isn’t ready, and many of them reiterated those promises on Tuesday, even as members of Congress filtered off the House floor, having just approved the procedural motion 220-212.
Following the vote, the Chamber of Commerce, an ally of No Labels and Gottheimer during the fight, applauded the crew for having “decoupled” the infrastructure bill from reconciliation by winning the promise of the vote.
Liz Morrison, co-executive director of No Labels, echoed that sentiment in a memo (italics in the original) that the group circulated privately to allies, obtained by The Intercept. Wrote Morrison:
Speaker Pelosi has now guaranteed a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill by no later than September 27. This means the infrastructure bill will likely be voted on first and before any vote to pass a reconciliation bill. This is not what Pelosi wanted as both she and the Progressive Caucus had previously insisted that the Senate vote to approve the full reconciliation bill before the Speaker would bring the infrastructure bill to the floor.
The Unbreakable Nine have now broken this link as Pelosi can no longer use the infrastructure bill as leverage to force Democratic moderates to vote for a reconciliation bill. It will now rise or fall on its own merits. This is why Politico Playbook—which is the most read political newsletter in DC—just wrote that Pelosi “grossly underestimated” the Nine and that they “planted a flag in the ground for the fights to come.”
BUT, the Nine had to give up something too. They agreed to vote yes on the budget resolution that authorizes debate to begin on reconciliation. This is essentially the same thing all 50 Senate Democrats did a few weeks ago. It is just a vote to begin debate and in the end, any of the Nine can still vote against a final reconciliation bill.
But have “the Nine” really decoupled the two measures? If progressives still have the votes to sink the infrastructure bill without the accompanying reconciliation package, then the bills are not decoupled. That’s not a fundamentally different dynamic than prevailed last week.
“It has to be both, they have to be together,” said Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., the whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told The Intercept that the caucus’s insistence on coupling the two measures had not changed. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., agreed. “The bills will only move together,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., chair emeritus of the CPC, saying the caucus has “a strong chunk of members who will see to it.”
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, one of the “unbreakable nine” — who became 10 before being broken — told The Intercept that he wasn’t worried about progressives voting down the infrastructure bill if it broke onto its own track on September 27, because he expected to pick up Republican votes. “We’ve got at least 10, 12 Republicans,” he said, and the progressives will fall in line. “They’re going to support the president, I feel very confident.”
Gottheimer had felt equally confident. In an interview with The Atlantic, he explained that his move was an attempt to fulfill Biden’s agenda and that the White House was supportive of the effort. Asked if that was the case, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said simply: “No.”
Update: August 24, 2021, 10:53 p.m. ET
This story was updated to include an excerpt from No Labels’ memo.