By Robert Reich
Congress is on recess this week, which offers me a chance to summarize where President Biden’s economic plan is at this point, make a few predictions, and clear up some bogus claims in the media.
On Friday night, the House of Representatives passed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill by a vote of 228-206. Thirteen Republicans voted for the plan and six Democrats voted against it. This is a big win for America. The infrastructure bill will provide close to $600 billion in new federal spending over the next decade for roads, rail, ports, water systems, bridges, dams, airports, and broadband. It puts $47 billion toward helping communities deal with the impacts of climate change.
Progressives had wanted the infrastructure vote to coincide with a vote on Biden’s social and climate package (“Build Back Better”) -– which includes healthcare, childcare, paid leave, affordable housing, prescription drug reform, and climate initiatives. They feared that once the infrastructure bill was passed, conservative Democrats might have no interest in further legislation. For the last two months, progressives have acted as a bloc to withhold their votes from the infrastructure package to protect against this possibility.
But on Friday, a small group of conservative Democrats — Representative Ed Case from Hawaii, Jared Golden from Maine, Stephanie Murphy from Florida, Kathleen Rice from New York, Kurt Schrader from Oregon, and Abigail Spanberger from Virginia — derailed that plan. The conservative Democrats demanded that before they vote on the social and climate package, the Congressional Budget Office estimate its costs. The estimate won’t be ready until next week.
Progressives led by Washington representative Pramila Jayapal decided to accept a commitment from the conservative holdouts that they’ll vote for the social and climate package once they receive the cost estimates. All but one Democratic member of the House (Golden) has committed to voting for it — enough votes for passage.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated that the social and climate package will come to the House floor after the Veterans Day recess.
The media (not just Fox News but several mainstream reporters and commentators) are spinning several falsehoods about where things stand right now:
1. “Democrats are in disarray.” This has been a trope of CNN and the New York Times. To the contrary, Democrats have worked hard to come to a series of agreements that are likely to result in a considerable portion of Biden’s economic plan being enacted. (If you want to see a party in real disarray, look across the aisle at the Trumpers and the few courageous Never Trumpers.)
2. “It’s been an epic battle between progressive and moderate Democrats.” This has been repeated by the Times, Washington Post, and CNN. Wrong again. Democratic lawmakers aren’t nearly evenly split. Almost all support the social and climate bill. A small minority in the House (listed above) and in the Senate (essentially, Manchin and Sinema) are opposed. And it’s not at all an “epic battle.” There’s little bad blood between progressives and conservative Democrats. I know several on both sides, and they overwhelmingly like and respect each other (can’t say that for the Republicans).
3. “Progressive Democrats lost.” This is being blasted by Fox News and rightwing radio, but it’s also wrong. The negotiations have succeeded in bringing conservative Democrats to the table to hammer out the social and climate package — a major victory. Earlier in the fall, Senator Joe Manchin had called for a “strategic pause” until next year on the social and climate package. Now it’s on track to get done this year.
4. “The Democrat’s social and climate package is a vast overreach.” The New York Times editorial page is saying this, reflecting its increasing role as mouthpiece for corporate and Wall Street Democrats. It’s utter rubbish. Every measure in the package – paid leave, childcare, pre-K, Medicare dental and hearing benefits, lower prescription drug prices, and the climate initiatives — is hugely popular. Poll after poll shows them supported by 75% to 88% of Americans, even in the districts of conservative Democrats. A majority of Republican voters support them. Enacting them would put the United States on par with most other rich nations, which already provide them.
5. “In the end, conservative House Democrats won’t go along with the social and climate package.” That’s always a risk, but they’ve given their commitments. Speaker Nancy Pelosi knows how to enforce such commitments.
6. “What the House does is irrelevant because Manchin, Sinema, and other conservative Senate Democrats won’t vote for this anyway” That’s certainly possible, but conservative Senate Democrats are far more willing to compromise now than they were months ago (see #3 above). And as specific measures in the social and climate package become better understood by the public, the response is likely to continue to grow more favorable – which helps even with Democratic lawmakers who respond to big money.
I don’t mean to paint too rosy a picture. I’m frustrated that so much of the original plan has been scuttled, and I continue to be concerned about the amount of corporate money flowing into the coffers of Democrats. (By paying off Kathleen Rice and Kurt Schrader, for example, Big Pharma has so far killed the measure allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.)
I also worry that even if the social and climate package is enacted, Democrats may lose the opportunity and political will to pass voting rights — which is even more important in the longer term.
But there is good news, and we should be grateful.