It started as an accidental dare. As House leaders met on November 5 in an effort to reach a final deal on both the Build Back Better Act and a bipartisan infrastructure bill, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., suggested the Congressional Black Caucus could be helpful in ending an impasse between a group of holdouts, led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal.
The suggestion was dismissed out of hand by Gottheimer’s crew, Clyburn would later tell allies, with the Black Caucus being written off as irrelevant in a changing Congress. Once known as “the conscience of Congress,” the caucus, founded in 1971 by 13 members, drew its power from the legacy of the civil rights movement and its ability to speak with one voice and vote as a bloc. That unity had been chipped away over the past two election cycles, amid a generational and ideological struggle that played out in party primaries.
Clyburn took the diss as a challenge. After the meeting, a livid Clyburn summoned the CBC leadership, telling CBC Chair Joyce Beatty, Rep. Maxine Waters, and others about the disrespect put on the name of the caucus. It was incumbent on them to prove the doubters wrong, he said. How much disrespect was real and how much he was ginning it up to motivate the CBC is a matter of dispute, but the effect was clear. Beatty pledged the caucus would move swiftly. Shortly before 2 p.m. she, Reps. Steven Horsford, D-Nev.; Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas; and others left Clyburn’s office and told reporters that the caucus would support the effort to split the two bills, though the caucus had yet to meet on the question.
Beatty quickly scheduled a caucus meeting and urged the group to back the leadership strategy, telling members that the credibility of Clyburn and the CBC was on the line. The meeting overlapped with another gathering of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which was debating the same questions, with some members who served in both caucuses shuttling back and forth.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., made a motion that the caucus unify behind Clyburn and leadership, and Horsford, who’d also been in the Clyburn meeting, seconded it. Reps. Cori Bush, Ayanna Pressley, Bonnie Watson Coleman, and Ilhan Omar all pushed back against the strategy, asking the motion to be withdrawn, which it eventually was. No vote was held. “We were adamant that there was no agreement, but they put out a statement anyway,” said one CBC member.
Beatty journeyed from the CBC meeting to the CPC one, where the progressive caucus was still gathered. She told reporters outside in the hallway that she was acting on her own initiative, but was conspicuously accompanied by a senior aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
She stood outside awkwardly as she was refused entry under the reasoning that only CPC members could attend the meeting. “I think it was a mistake for CPC not to be in better dialogue with CBC and joint strategy. Having Joyce Beatty wait outside to address CPC was arrogant and wrong,” said one CPC member.
One nonmember was allowed to join by speaker phone, however: Joe Biden. A week earlier, after lengthy negotiations with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin that had followed a successful CPC effort to hold the line and keep the two bills paired, the Biden administration released a new framework, which Manchin praised.
President Biden's framework is the product of months of negotiations and input from all members of the Democratic Party who share a common goal to deliver for the American people.
— Senator Joe Manchin (@Sen_JoeManchin) October 28, 2021
During the CPC meeting, Biden beseeched the caucus to give him a win on the infrastructure bill, asking them to trust that he had a commitment from Manchin to get Build Back Better done. The day before, Manchin had appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and said he was in agreement with a $1.75 trillion top line for the bill.
Progressives were also facing pressure from Democrats who blamed November election losses on the infrastructure bill’s delay, noted one progressive House staffer who requested anonymity to speak freely with The Intercept. Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia argued Terry McAuliffe, the party’s candidate, could have won the governor’s race if the framework was already signed into law.
“After the November elections, with establishment Democrats loudly blaming progressives for their losses, every faction of the party apparatus was arrayed against the CPC and determined to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill alone,” the source said.
Even after Biden’s call, according to people in the room, more than two dozen Democrats were still willing to vote no, unwilling to trust Manchin’s word. Jayapal, however, made the case that the CPC had taken it as far as it could and told those assembled that she was going to back the president’s play. Omar, the CPC whip, continued pushing for the caucus to hold the line, but with the caucus chair siding with Biden, resistance crumbled.
Whether House Democrats had the votes still remained an open question, however, and five members of the Squad — Omar, Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Jamaal Bowman — announced they would be voting no. “I’m a no,” Ocasio-Cortez told The Intercept that evening. “This is bullshit.”
Without those five, Pelosi needed Republican votes, and GOP leadership had previously said it would force Democrats to pass the majority threshold on their own before Republicans would help. But not long after the vote opened, several moderate Republicans voted yes, assuring the bill’s passage. Rep. Ayanna Pressley ended up joining her Squad colleagues in their no votes.
In exchange for their votes, the CPC had won a commitment from Gottheimer’s crew that if a Congressional Budget Office analysis came in relatively close to the White House assessment, they would vote to move the bill to the Senate. Gottheimer’s gang made good on that pledge, and by mid-November, the bill was in the hands of the Senate. For the next month, Manchin negotiated with the White House.
Those negotiations were only made possible by House progressives holding the line, Jayapal noted, adding that the Senate had already acted without any commitment from Manchin. “The Senate passed the infrastructure bill without any commitment on the Build Back Better Act, and it fell to the progressive caucus against the push of our own leadership, political pundits and eventually the White House to hold the line,” she said.
“I want to be very clear that I believe it was our insistence on holding the line that got Senator Manchin to commit to a framework negotiated by the president that I don’t think Senator Manchin ever wanted to do in the first place,” Jayapal said. “I believe we were able to put him in a box with that framework where he would either have to uphold his commitment to the president or – and I do believe the president when he said to us and to me personally that he got a commitment from Senator Manchin – or he’d have to go back on his word.”
The job of House progressives, she said, was to get both bills through the House and get a commitment from Manchin, beyond which the responsibility lay with the president to finish it. “We held the line not just once, but twice, and even a third time for a very long day at the end to insist that we get what we needed to pass both bills through the House and pass both bills through the House we did,” she said.
Last Wednesday, the White House issued a statement blaming Manchin for the delay that The Hill’s Steve Clemons says set Manchin off. On Sunday, he took to Fox News and let the world know he was “done.”
On Monday morning, Manchin called Jayapal to talk. Later, in a conference call with reporters, she said that she had been blunt with Manchin. “That lack of integrity is stunning,” she said, particularly in a city where your word is everything.”
She said Manchin denied ever having made a commitment to Biden. “I don’t know what to make of that,” she said. “I still believe the president got that commitment.”
“Either the president did not have a commitment, or the senator made a commitment and went back. And I believe the president when he said he had a commitment,” she said.
“I don’t believe the senator actually wanted to pass Build Back Better.”
Asked if she regretted the decision to break the two pieces of legislation up and give away leverage, she said she has pondered it since. “This is the question I’ve gone over in my head a million times,” she said, concluding that she didn’t regret the decision because, she argued, there was no particular tactic that could have overcome what she now believes was always Manchin’s plan to walk away.
“I don’t believe the senator actually wanted to pass Build Back Better,” she said on the call. If Democrats had held the line again that evening and blocked passage of the infrastructure bill, she argued, Manchin would have used that moment as his excuse to bolt.
Ultimately, Biden and Pelosi pushed the progressive caucus to break with a two-track strategy they themselves had previously endorsed, based on a confidence in their own ability to move the final legislation through the process, born of decades of experience inside the system — experience that distorted their view of the situation and gave them an inflated sense of their own personal power absent sufficient leverage. They were successfully able to pressure Jayapal into going along, while the members of the Squad, peering in from the outside, could see the firm contours of the structure much more clearly.
It’s impossible to know what would have happened in a counterfactual situation, in which progressives would have continued to hold the infrastructure bill as leverage. Jayapal argued the leverage wouldn’t have worked on Manchin; the infrastructure bill was much more of a priority to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. Yet the bipartisan bill was indeed something Manchin wanted, both for his state and for his reelection. Jayapal said the strategy worked as well as it could and “boxed him in” to supporting the framework, after which it was up to the president to reel him in.
“I think he was looking for a way to not do it, and that would have been the day that the Build Back Better Act died,” Jayapal said, referring to November 19, the day the infrastructure bill passed the House with majority support from the CPC.
“That would have also been the day that we turned the country against us,” she added, “so no. I don’t have regrets.”
Those who objected to the strategy in real time, however, saw Manchin’s move as the danger they predicted. “Alexandria warned it could happen,” read an email Ocasio-Cortez sent to reporters. “Yesterday, it did.”