Kyrsten Sinema Would Gladly Pay Democrats Magic Beans Tuesday For Passing Her Infrastructure Bill Today
We're all anxiously waiting for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to save President Joe Biden's Build Back Better agenda. Here's the current state of play that might change before you've finished reading: Democrats Joe Manchin from West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona are threatening to tank the whole thing, and in return, progressive Democrats have threatened to blow up the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal. It's like the end of Reservoir Dogs right now.
Pelosi "decoupled" the bipartisan infrastructure deal (or BIF) this week, which led some Democrats to fear she was folding to Sinema and Manchin. The word “betrayal" might've been used. However, Pelosi told everyone to chill the fuck out. She's assured them they won't compromise their values, but the plain truth is that BIF and the reconciliation bill won't be ready at the same time.
Minority Majority Leader Chuck Schumer admitted that Pelosi didn't consult him before changing course, but why should she? She can keep her caucus in line and deliver the votes, but she's not showing up for the party if Schumer's still running around making last-minute arrangements. Pelosi can also pass the bill but delay sending it to Biden until Senate Democrats are aligned on reconciliation. Pelosi will just run the damn party if she must.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez expressed concerns that separating the bills will only pit competing factions against each other, and while some folks disagree with her on instinct, she still has a point. Illinois Rep. Jesús García told CNN he fears that reconciliation bill supporters "could be hung out to dry" if they pass BIF before even having a commitment on the infrastructure bill. Garcia is among several Democrats who say they won't vote for BIF on Thursday without an "agreement that both bills will go." That's not what you say when you trust people.
How did Democrats wind up in this Capitol hill standoff and why are Manchin and Sinema solely responsible? Manchin is Manchin, and while I'm not making excuses for him, he's at least more upfront about his lousy terms for supporting the Democrats' reconciliation bill. He's demanded means testing and work requirements for "everything that we possibly can." He'd also like income caps for the child tax credit. (He also wants nothing to interfere with the fossil fuels God buried for us, which is a rather larger demand.) It's all awful but concrete.
Sinema is more slippery. It's not clear what she wants, which is a concern because she's putatively a Democrat and her interests should align with those Biden's. His human infrastructure agenda is consistent with everything that was on his campaign web site. Sinema endorsed Biden and not just because he wasn't Trump. She should want him to deliver on his campaign promises because when presidents fail to do so, it's objectively bad for their entire party.
There was a story a couple weeks ago about how Sinema was showing up at these reconciliation bill meetings “armed with spreadsheets," but yet she won't actually discuss specific numbers beyond claiming that $3.5 trillion (over 10 years) is just too damn high.
During a private meeting with the president, Sinema made clear she's still not on board with the party's $3.5 trillion social spending plan and is hesitant to engage on some specifics until the bipartisan infrastructure package passes the House, according to a person who spoke with her.
It's obvious by now that Sinema's negotiating in bad faith, which we know because she keeps insisting she's negotiating in good faith. “I'm totally not trying to screw you" is what you don't want to hear during a business meeting. Sinema has had 10 meetings at the White House over the summer. It's like she's casing the joint rather than trying to reach a consensus. Presumably actual numbers were discussed during negotiations for the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. Her red line in May was that she wouldn't support anything without bipartisan support because we fucked around and elected a bipartisan-obsessed senator in 20-fucking-18. Now we're about to find out how bad an idea that was.
This misguided obsession with “bipartisanship" gives Republicans all the leverage. Democrats end up with no hand, because Republicans just say, “That's a partisan bill," regardless of its substance. Republicans won't support the Build Back Better agenda on general principle and Sinema won't commit to doing so until Democrats pass what Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo describes as her "infrastructure bill vanity project."
People want to make this a “centrist" versus “progressive" showdown, but I repeat, Build Back Better is Joe Biden's agenda, not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal or Elizabeth Warren's Medicare for All. After a lengthy Democratic primary where we watched Pete Buttigieg grow up before our eyes, it's insulting to claim that Biden's proposing some unattainable, progressive pie-in-the-sky bill.
Progressives are just asking for a damn number and a commitment to passing (even if in altered form) the reconciliation bill, as they agreed to support Sinema's bill with the understanding that Sinema would support reconciliation.
"We just need to get a number right?" said Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California and member of the House's progressive caucus. "The House is going to be unified. We need to get one number from one senator, and I think we got to make it very clear that that's holding everything back."
Honest brokers don't refuse to “engage on some specifics" on their part of the bargain until you give them exactly what they want. I've seen it argued that Democrats should just pass Sinema's BIF without any concessions from Sinema because she has all the hand, and even if she tanks reconciliation while laughing in Biden's face, the BIF is better than nothing. It's understandably difficult to think clearly with all those bananas in your tailpipe, but it's worth considering why Mitch McConnell, who's otherwise devoted to sinking the Biden presidency, agreed to the BIF in the first place. He doesn't care about roads and bridges, but he would love to kill Build Back Better.
There've also been appeals to Democrats' maturity: OK, so Sinema screws them, is that worth losing all the good in the BIF? Democrats would enter the midterms without even that reasonable achievement. However, Josh Marshall — hardly a radical progressive flamethrower — makes a strong case that if it's ultimately the BIF or nothing, Democrats should kill the bill.
How we've gotten to the point that they cannot collectively control the outcome … well, that's crazy. But that's where we are. Largely because of Kyrsten Sinema. But look at what we're talking about here. Is the reward for her betrayal having the party she is betraying pass her infrastructure bill? That's too crazy to allow to happen. It is a basic element of life for individuals that we must strive to confront with dignity things we cannot control. It shapes who we are. And something similar applies to political coalitions and parties.
I agree with Marshall that it's not as easy as Democrats simply folding and passing the BIF. Sinema's betrayal would “rip the Democratic coalition apart." And as much as centrists want to pin all the donkey's woes on Ocasio-Cortez, it's not progressive Democrats in safe blue districts who'd suffer the most. Standing up to Sinema could mean a loss — although I still believe Nancy Pelosi can stick the landing — but as Marshall says, “losing well is far better than losing poorly." In fact, losing well is often a prerequisite for eventually winning.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."