Last summer, a group of Democrats organized by New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer derailed President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda by successfully decoupling it from a bipartisan infrastructure bill.
The group was dubbed the “Unbreakable Nine.” The bill, known as the Build Back Better Act, was paid for in part by tax increases on the wealthy and on private equity, and was opposed by the dark-money group No Labels, funded by private equity moguls and the extreme rich.
Though the opposition was clearly related to the class interests of the super rich, the public-facing argument was that Build Back Better was too large and that it was dragging the party to the left, threatening its hold on power. “This Unbreakable Nine is showing America that we can still do amazing things,” said a national ad paid for by No Labels last summer.
Instead, voters are tossing them out.
By Tuesday night, three of those nine had been ousted in primaries, with a fourth having already quit Congress for K Street, and a fifth having second thoughts about the scheming. The Unbreakable Nine’s numbers are now dwindling, and after Tuesday’s races, they may be down to just four or five.
On Tuesday, Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux lost to Rep. Lucy McBath in a member-on-member race Georgia prompted by redistricting. And in Texas, as of this writing, Rep. Henry Cuellar is slightly ahead of his opponent, Jessica Cisneros.
McBath, whose 17-year-old son was shot and killed in 2012 in a dispute over loud music, first ran in 2018 in the Atlanta suburbs as a proponent of gun control with the support of Everytown for Gun Safety. Her son’s killer was acquitted under “stand your ground” laws. In her run against Bourdeaux, McBath benefited from an influx of spending by American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Democratic Majority for Israel, as well as Protect Our Future PAC, which is funded by crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried.
Congratulations to Third Way honorary co-chair Lucy McBath. On this somber day of senseless tragedy and political cowardice, her voice has never been more important.— Jim Kessler (@ThirdWayKessler) May 25, 2022
Last week, Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., was beaten, despite more than a million dollars in outside support from a super PAC linked to the pharmaceutical industry, along with another $1.5 million from a super PAC founded by Silicon Valley billionaire Reid Hoffman.
Though the races can be viewed through a progressive-centrist prism, Democratic primary voters are also famously fixated on electability — and it wasn’t always obvious that the centrist candidate was more electable. In Oregon, voters and local party officials regularly expressed concerns that Schrader’s ties to Big Pharma and his conspicuous votes in their favor would make him a general election liability. In Texas, voters were nervous about the FBI investigation clouding Cuellar’s future, though his longtime popularity may overcome those concerns.
Schrader, Cuellar, and Bourdeaux also may have torched their careers in vain. A pared-down version of Build Back Better is now being revived, with Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois saying Tuesday, “We’re going to get reconciliation done,” putting the chance of a handshake deal by Monday at 50/50. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaking from Davos (where else?), said that getting the bill done represented “a responsibility and opportunity that we can do something.”
Texas Democrat Filemon Vela announced last year he would retire from Congress at the end of his term, and then quit the House early in March so that he could join one of Washington’s largest law and corporate lobbying practices, Akin Gump. (By leaving in March 2022 rather than waiting until January 2023, Vela accelerates the one-to-two-year period before which he can legally lobby his colleagues by nearly a year. Until then, he can only provide “strategic advice” to corporate clients.) Vela’s resignation triggered a special election that Republicans could claim in June.
In a private meeting last summer with donors to the dark-money group No Labels, which financed the effort to kill the package, Gottheimer and Schrader celebrated their successful decoupling. “Let’s deal with the reconciliation later. Let’s pass that infrastructure package right now, and don’t get your hopes up that we’re going to spend trillions more of our kids’ and grandkids’ money that we don’t really have at this point,” Schrader said.
The strategy to ensure passage of Build Back Better by coupling it to the bipartisan infrastructure bill originated with Democratic leadership and was embraced by the White House, but it later became associated with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which sought to implement the strategy by refusing to vote on one without the other.
After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in June that she wouldn’t move the infrastructure bill before reconciliation had moved through the Senate, Biden infuriated Republicans and centrist Democrats by backing her and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “I expect that in the coming months this summer, before the fiscal year is over, that we will have voted on this bill, the infrastructure bill, as well as voted on the budget resolution,” Biden told reporters. “But if only one comes to me, I’m not signing it. It’s in tandem.”
When Republicans reacted angrily, the White House stuck by the plan. “That hasn’t been a secret,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “He hasn’t said it quietly. He hasn’t even whispered it. He said it very much out loud to all of you as we have said many times from here.”
Democratic leaders, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, were concerned that if the bipartisan infrastructure bill were signed into law, centrists in the House and Senate would bail on the rest of Biden’s agenda. Their fears, which turned out to be well-founded, stemmed largely from the influence of private equity and the pharmaceutical industry, both of which would be gently dinged to pay for the package.
Gottheimer’s gang responded by refusing to support either package unless they were decoupled, and the bloc was eventually able to win a promise to vote on the infrastructure bill by September 27. They used the intervening months to coordinate with Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., to undermine support for the reconciliation bill, and progressives were still refusing to support one without commitments toward the other.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus managed to delay the vote, and on October 1, Pelosi met privately with her broader caucus. Frustrated, she ripped Gottheimer’s nine in a scene recounted in Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns’s new book, “This Will Not Pass.”
“We read in the paper that there are members of our caucus joining with members of the Senate that reject the 3.5,” Pelosi said, referring to the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. “The very same people who are demanding a vote on a certain day are making it impossible for us to have a vote on a certain day.”
Gottheimer’s gang had been texting, and their chain lit up. As Martin and Burns reported:
Carolyn Bourdeaux, the Georgia freshman, texted the other eight members of the Gottheimer-led moderate bloc before the meeting adjourned. “Oh dear lord this whole thing is going to collapse,” she wrote. Kurt Schrader, the Oregon centrist who had voted to keep Pelosi as Speaker because he saw her as a safeguard against the far left, wrote back in biting language. The former veterinarian had never intended to vote for a multitrillion-dollar reconciliation bill at all. Pelosi’s claim was absurd. “Truly a terrible person,” Schrader said of the most powerful Democrat in the House.
The Unbreakable Nine eventually managed to split the two bills apart, and once the infrastructure bill was safely signed by the president, the centrists killed Build Back Better, as had been predicted and as had been the plan all along. Manchin pronounced it dead on Fox News in December.
At the height of the Unbreakable Nine’s effort to force Pelosi’s hand, Bourdeaux and another of the nine, Rep. Vicente González of Texas, were scheduled to appear in California at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fundraiser hosted by Pelosi. No Labels urged them to cancel, offering to raise $200,000 each to make up the lost revenue. Bourdeaux attended the fundraiser; González canceled.
With Build Back Better off the table, Biden’s approval rating nosedived. Centrists have taken to blaming progressives for demanding too much of the administration. Democratic voters, however, seem unimpressed by the Gottheimer group’s scheming.
Gottheimer does not face a primary challenge, but he may see a credible Republican opponent in the fall. The nine’s other three survivors are Ed Case of Hawaii, Jim Costa of California, and Jared Golden of Maine.
Golden was always an odd man out in the group, as his criticisms of Build Back Better were generally shared by progressives rather than the other eight obstructionists. He wanted a billionaire tax included in the package, demanded tougher drug pricing legislation, and opposed the state and local tax, or SALT, deduction giveaway. Unlike Vela, Golden has sponsored multiple efforts in the House to prevent former members of Congress from becoming federal lobbyists.
González is running in Vela’s old district, as his own was drawn to become more Republican, and he won his primary in March. Case has drawn a progressive primary challenger, Sergio Alcubilla, for an August election, but Alcubilla reported less than $10,000 cash on hand at the end of the most recent quarter; Case appears safe for now.