Centrist Democrats Honor Promise as House Approves Build Back Better Act

The legislation passed the House 220-213, with one Democrat, Rep. Jared Golden, voting against the bill from the left, citing a tax giveaway to the rich.

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 18: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., conducts her weekly news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on Thursday, November 18, 2021. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., conducts her weekly news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on Nov. 18, 2021. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

On Friday morning, a handful of Democrats who withheld support from the Build Back Better Act earlier this month stuck to their pledge to pass it no later than the week of November 15, sending the bill to the Senate for a final round of negotiations with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin. The legislation passed the House 220-213, with one Democrat, Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, voting against the bill from the left, citing a tax giveaway to the rich.

The bill contains funding for universal pre-K programs, subsidized child care for lower- and middle-class families, an extended child tax credit, the largest federal investment in housing to date, and hundreds of billions of dollars for initiatives to fight climate change. The package also contains a number of narrower proposals meant to shore up long-standing parts of the social safety net, like coverage for hearing needs in Medicare and a program to cover the Medicaid gap, partly paid for by allowing Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices.

On Wednesday, Manchin told reporters that he was comfortable with Senate leadership’s timeline of a vote by the end of the year, walking back his comments a day prior urging a longer pause to gauge the intensity and durability of inflation.

Though Manchin has not publicly signed on, his green light was another sign that President Joe Biden’s climate and social spending bill has significant momentum even in the face of his cratering approval numbers.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., said that he’ll be keeping an eye on how Manchin approaches the outstanding issues and additions that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., made to the bill last minute. “I’m not anticipating there’s a lot of room to add new things,” he said. “I think it’s just the opposite. I don’t want to lose things.”

Certain titles included in the House bill, such as a federal paid family leave system, immigration reforms, and a controversial provision to bring back the deduction of state and local income taxes, are expected to be stripped from the package due to opposition from members of the Senate and, in the case of immigration reforms, adverse advisories from that chamber’s parliamentarian.

The Build Back Better Act is a combination of two Biden campaign promises: his American Families Plan and a significant portion of his climate platform. The measures were originally intended to be combined with his American Jobs Plan, but a bipartisan group of senators split the infrastructure piece of the legislation off and struck a deal, hoping that it would drain momentum from the rest of the package. But House and Senate leaders, along with Biden and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, insisted that the bipartisan bill be held back until agreement was reached on the rest of the agenda. Biden’s support for that strategy was haphazard, and he was for it and against it multiple times.

In September, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., succeeded in getting a pledge from Pelosi to split the two measures apart, but when the agreed-upon deadline in late September came, progressives held firm, and Pelosi was forced to pull the bill from the floor. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., reacted angrily, lashing out at her former House colleagues, saying that she couldn’t be forced into supporting the bill. “I have never, and would never, agree to any bargain that would hold one piece of legislation hostile to another,” she said.

Negotiations around the Build Back Better bill continued, and Pelosi tried again a month later, on October 29. Again, the progressive caucus held firm, and Pelosi again pulled the bill. Within days of progressives holding the line a second time, Sinema had been brought around, leaving Manchin as the lone Senate holdout.

On November 5, Pelosi again pushed to move the bipartisan bill through the House, this time with the help of Biden, who called into a progressive caucus meeting to plead with the CPC to go along. The caucus broke under the presidential pressure, though the six members of the Squad — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Cori Bush of Missouri, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — voted no. Republicans had previously said that they would withhold their votes until Democrats reached a majority on their own and only then would cast the few yes votes from their side. That meant the Squad’s no votes could have taken the bill down, but Pelosi put it on the floor, confident that the Republicans would come along. In the end, several Republicans cast yes votes early in the process, putting it over the top, with 13 of them ultimately backing the bill. They have since come under furious assault from their colleagues.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., trying to offset criticism of Republican leadership from major donors and the party’s far right wing, took advantage of a special rule that enables caucus leaders to speak for an unlimited amount of time to hold the floor for over eight hours on Thursday night. His remarks surpassed Pelosi’s previous record for longest House floor speech and pushed the final Build Back Better vote to Friday morning.

The vote serves as a political lifeline for CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal, who persuaded most caucus members to go along with a deal to allow passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill in exchange for a statement from five conservative Democratic holdouts promising to vote for the Build Back Better Act after the release of scoring information from the Congressional Budget Office, on the condition that the vote occur no later than the end of this week. Jayapal’s agreement was at odds with the caucus’s previous position demanding that the two bills remain linked, and she drew fire from progressives who worried that the caucus would lose its leverage if the bipartisan bill passed before the House considered the Build Back Better Act.

Jayapal argued that the CPC’s maneuvers helped guarantee the inclusion of progressive provisions in the bill. “I feel like we held the line, not just once but twice. We jump-started all the negotiations that weren’t happening between the two senators and the White House and progressives,” she told The Intercept, referring to Manchin and Sinema. “We kept all of our progressive priorities in, albeit at lesser numbers and not as strong as it would have been at $3.5 trillion, but we really defined that fight.”

By threatening to withhold support from the infrastructure bill, progressives also got commitments from the conservative Democratic holdouts to support their policy priorities in the bill, including immigration reforms and prescription drug negotiation. Pocan, the chair emeritus of the CPC, said that the caucus had also gotten “preclearance” on roughly 95 percent of the Build Back Better Act. (Preclearance means that the legislation was precleared with a majority of the Senate.) “We’ve already ran it by all the parties,” he said.

As the programs within the Build Back Better package were scaled back, so were the revenue-raising proposals meant to fund them. The current package is offset primarily through increases in funding for the IRS for enforcement, a 15 percent minimum tax on large corporations, a global tax on multinational corporations, and other measures that increase the tax liability of wealthy Americans and large businesses. Provisions to increase the corporate tax rate and increase the individual tax rate on high earners were stripped from the package due to opposition from Sinema. Other proposals, such as a tax on asset growth that resembled a wealth tax, were temporarily considered but ultimately discarded in the face of opposition from conservative Democrats. Hedge funds and private equity firms have dodged an effort so far to close the loophole that allows them to pay lower taxes than regular workers.

Asked if she’s worried about the Senate pulling out key priorities from the House bill, House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said, “I’m going to take it one at a time. I don’t know what the Senate’s going to do … but I know what I’m fighting for, the child tax credit. I’m fighting for paid family medical leave.”

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