Conservative Democrats obstructing the $350 billion domestic annual spending package known as reconciliation falsely stated on Thursday they never knew about a two-track strategy to push the measure across the finish line as an accompaniment to bipartisan infrastructure legislation. As House progressives threaten to vote down the bipartisan infrastructure bill today, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., his ally in the House, are now claiming such a strategy never existed.
Murphy on Wednesday called the claim a “historical” fiction, and Manchin suggested it was all news to him. “I never knew about that. Never heard about that,” Manchin told reporters Wednesday. That’s quite an unbelievable assertion, given that Manchin defended the strategy back in June.
The two-track approach has emerged as a central flashpoint in the final phase of a bruising battle over the course of the Biden presidency and, in no small measure, the future of the Democratic Party. A handful of party holdouts are insisting the strategy be abandoned by passing the infrastructure bill on its own, thus stripping progressives of any leverage. To make their case, they’re pretending no agreement ever existed.
For those who haven’t been following congressional maneuvers in fine detail: Months ago, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., publicly said they would tie the reconciliation package to the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure plan.
On June 24, Pelosi told reporters she was firm in her commitment to the strategy. “We will not take up a bill in the House until the Senate passes the bipartisan bill and a reconciliation bill. If there is no bipartisan bill then we’ll just go when the Senate passes a reconciliation bill. But I’m hopeful that we will have the bipartisan bill,” she said. “There ain’t gonna be no bipartisan bill unless we’re going to have a reconciliation bill.”
“One can’t be done without the other,” Schumer said. “We can’t get the bipartisan bill done unless we’re sure of getting the budget reconciliation bill done.”
When President Joe Biden that day made the same argument, Manchin came to his defense. “It’s the only strategy we have — is two-track,” he said that afternoon.
The goal was to get the progressive, centrist, and conservative flanks of the Democratic Party on board with both. Centrists and conservatives would get the infrastructure plan, which had bipartisan support and would help them in swing districts, and progressives would get reconciliation, which would put in place a transformative social safety net and crucial climate provisions. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure proposal would invest in roads and bridges but hardly make a dent to enact reforms that Democrats promised constituents on the campaign trail. So infrastructure was paired with reconciliation, which can use a simple majority in the Senate to pass crucial pieces of budget-related legislation that can’t make it through the normal legislative process. (Unlike most legislation, bills passed through reconciliation are immune to the filibuster.)
The infrastructure bill passed the Senate in August, and Pelosi set a September 27 deadline for the House to vote on it, though she has since delayed that date to today. In the meantime, the House began the drafting process for a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill.
This was already a compromise for progressives; the proposal, which seeks $3.5 trillion over the next decade, is much smaller than the $6 trillion the Senate Budget Committee pushed over the summer. But it would still achieve key aims like expanded Medicare coverage, universal prekindergarten, and paid family leave.
Then came the onslaught of lobbying to try to decouple the two bills. As The Intercept reported earlier this month, the dark-money, right-wing group No Labels explicitly told its donors that its goal was to delink them and praised Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. — another Senate holdout on reconciliation — for her “heroic efforts” to do so. The only possible hiccup, No Labels’ executive director wrote, is that progressives were vowing to oppose the infrastructure vote in the House until reconciliation was on Biden’s desk.
Progressives have held strong so far, forcing Pelosi to delay the infrastructure vote from its original deadline of Monday and maintaining pressure on conservative Democrats to pass the $3.5 trillion bill too. House Democratic lawmakers are staring into the abyss of indefinite minority status when the 2022 midterms roll around. For many, this is their last chance in the foreseeable future to actually legislate, and it’s going to take a lot to rip that away from them.
Some right-wing Democrats are now trying to counter their threats by arguing there was never a commitment to the two-track strategy.
Manchin’s ally in the House, Murphy, also denied there was a two-track approach. “I would point to … the media recording around when this came about and assert that that’s historical fiction,” she said Wednesday when asked if the infrastructure vote absent a reconciliation vote would violate the deal.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., dismissed Murphy’s claim: “That’s not fiction; I mean, that’s been said; I mean, google it.”
On Thursday, Politico reported on a memo from Manchin, drafted in July, saying that he wouldn’t support a reconciliation bill exceeding $1.5 trillion. The proposal was acknowledged by Schumer, who also says he promised to keep fighting Manchin on the line items.
Asked about the proposal, Manchin doubled down. “No two bills should ever be linked together. … I’ve been around for a long, long time in state and now in federal politics and that should never be the case,” he told reporters.
Manchin further told reporters that when he signed the document in July, he wasn’t even in favor of “moving on this type of a piece of legislation,” insisting, “I’ve never been a liberal.”
Pelosi has continued to insist she will hold a vote on the bipartisan bill Thursday. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, met with her earlier Thursday and told her the caucus was still planning to vote no. Whether a vote will be held remains to be seen. “I don’t think it will happen but if it does we are ready,” Jayapal said.