Would Progressives Sink an Infrastructure Compromise?

How Democratic Presidents from LBJ to Obama have bribed, seduced, and badgered their members into dropping their opposition to signature proposals.

‘Tis the season for ultimatums.

“I wouldn’t vote for it,” said Senator Bernie Sanders of the nascent bipartisan infrastructure proposal because it is not “paid for in a progressive way.” “No climate, no deal” is Senator Ed Markey’s mantra. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell said she wouldn’t vote for a bill that does not include funding for electric car charging stations. “I won’t commit to this deal” said Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unless Senator Joe Manchin commits to passing a $4 trillion infrastructure bill through the simple-majority reconciliation, and Manchin said he would not.

If we take everyone’s demands at face value, we might conclude the votes won’t be there for any compromise bill. But since we haven’t seen a high-stakes negotiation in some time, we may have forgotten that ultimatums from congresspeople can prove to be bluffs.

When Barack Obama was trying to get the Affordable Care Act through the House, he contended with swing district Democrats worried about their re-election, anti-abortion Democrats who opposed federal funding of abortions, and progressive Democrats upset that the Senate stripped out the House’s public health insurance option.

The swing district representatives were generally won over with appeals to their consciences; Obama wrote in his memoir, “This is it, I’d say to them finally. The point of it all. To have that rare chance, reserved for very few, to bend history in a better direction. And what was striking was how, more often than not, that was enough.” The anti-abortion Democrats were mollified by a presidential executive order promising not to use federal money to provide abortions through the new law.

But for a hard-core progressive like Congressman Dennis Kucinich (who is now running for Mayor of Cleveland), Obama couldn’t easily appeal to his conscience. Kucinich was opposing the bill out of conscience. He had even raised money from online donors by saying he wouldn’t vote for a bill that lacked a public option.

Instead, Obama flew Kucinich on Air Force One for a rally in Cleveland and lobbied him on the flight. When Obama began his speech and acknowledged Kucinich’s presence, someone in the crowd shouted out, “Vote yes!” to which Obama replied, “Did you hear that, Dennis?”

Obama then described the conversation he had with Kucinich to the attendees: ”I was talking to Dennis Kucinich on the way over here about this. I said, you know what? It’s been such a long time since we made government on the side of ordinary working folks, where we did something for them that relieved some of their struggles, that made folks who work hard every day and are doing the right thing and who are looking out for the families and contributing to their communities, that just gave them a little bit of a better chance to live out their American Dream.” (emphasis added.) Obama used the language of incrementalism with Kucinich. Combined with the public pressure Kucinich received from Obama’s crowd, it worked.

Kucinich had previously said the bill was “a step in the wrong direction because it’s a step toward privatization” and “unless there’s some dramatic change in the content of the bill, I think they [in the White House] can predict how I’m going to vote.” But two days after his conversation with the president, Kucinich flipped, and justified it with a pragmatic argument: “I know I have to make a decision, not on the bill as I would like to see it, but as it is.”

He soon appeared on the progressive show Democracy Now, where he was reminded how just a few days earlier he demanded that the White House “put the public option back in.” Kucinich defended his surrender by arguing he fought for public option until the bitter end. “I took it all the way down to the line with the President, the Speaker of the House, Democratic leaders,” he said, “and it became clear to me that, despite my best efforts, I wasn’t going to be able to get it in the bill.”

In 1993, Bill Clinton also had to marshal all of his presidential powers to win a razor-thin 218-216 House vote for reducing the deficit by raising taxes. That required last-minute presidential lobbying to flip two Democrats representing right-leaning areas. First-year Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky campaigned in her Philadelphia suburb against raising taxes, and once in office, openly opposed Clinton’s deficit reduction package for months. But during a phone call with Clinton while inside the House chamber, Margolies-Mezvinsky extracted a nebulous promise from Clinton to visit her district and look harder at cutting social spending, and then acquiesced to Clinton’s plea.

Margolies-Mezvinsky’s flip is well remembered by political history buffs because immediately House Republicans heckled, “Goodbye Marjorie,” and proceeded to deliver on that taunt the following election year. But Montana’s Congressman Pat Williams also flipped at the last minute, and didn’t suffer Margolies-Mezvinsky’s fate.

Williams’ opposition to the deficit reduction package centered on its gas tax increase (which is controversially being proposed again by some Republicans to help pay for infrastructure). The generally liberal Williams had argued his constituents have to regularly drive long distances in his sparsely populated state and so would be disproportionately affected. But when Clinton told Williams, “my presidency is at stake,” he agreed to vote yes if his vote was absolutely needed, which it was. (Williams would later vote against the 1994 crime bill and its assault weapons ban, which saved him from attacks by the National Rifle Association and helped him win re-election amid the Gingrich revolution.)

Go farther back in history, and you’ll find examples of presidents using transactional tactics to deal with skittish congresspeople. When President Jimmy Carter was struggling to get the 67th vote to ratify the treaties relinquishing control of the Panama Canal, he spent $250 million to prop up the price of Arizona copper at the behest of one stubborn holdout, Democratic Senator Dennis DeConcini. To help end the months-long filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, following the magnitude 9.2 Great Alaskan Earthquake, President Lyndon Johnson won support for cloture from the two Alaskan senators with $72.5 million in aid. And Senator Carl Hayden was offered funding for an Arizona aqueduct project in exchange for providing cloture (though Hayden had a long-standing opposition to cloture, and when it became clear his vote for cloture was not needed, the Senate Majority Leader let him off the hook.)

Such brazen horse-trading is harder to execute today. Obama’s attempt to earmark Medicaid funding to Nebraska and win Senator Ben Nelson’s support for health care reform was derided by Republicans as the “Cornhusker Kickback” and quickly scotched. But the president still has the tools of moral persuasion and political pressure, though the effectiveness of such tools depends on the congressperson.

Obama didn’t only use moral appeals to win over swing district health care holdouts. He had to talk politics, too. Obama wrote in his memoir, “I tried to give them my honest assessment: that support for the healthcare reform bill would improve once it passed, though maybe not until after the midterms; that a ‘no’ vote was more likely to turn off Democrats than it was to win over Republicans and independents; and that whatever they did, their fates in six months would most likely hinge on the state of the economy and my own political standing.” In other words, for most congressional Democrats, even swing district Democrats, their fates were bound up with the president.

Manchin’s fate in all likelihood is not bound up with Joe Biden’s. Biden didn’t win a single West Virginia county, while Manchin has a deep relationship with his constituents that has transcended partisanship. Biden could certainly try to impress upon Manchin that “my presidency is a stake” if he didn’t vote for a partisan infrastructure bill through reconciliation, but he can’t back up any personal appeal with in-state grassroots support. This is why Manchin is largely immune to presidential pressure.

However, if progressive congresspeople threaten to sink a bipartisan compromise on infrastructure that Biden supports, his tools of persuasion will be sharper. If and when he warns “my presidency is at stake,” he can also go to that person’s state or district and have that message amplified by Democratic base voters.

Take Oregon’s Ron Wyden. He is up for reelection next year and is one of the climate hawks demanding that any infrastructure bill be sufficiently green before he supports it. The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Wyden has been in Congress since 1981 and usually keeps a low profile. He’s likely to win yet again, but in recent years we have seen a handful of electorally rusty incumbents get blindsided by primary challengers. Would he want to risk attracting a fresh-faced opponent by being the person who killed an infrastructure deal and jeopardized the Biden presidency?

Of course Wyden and other progressives are more interested in shaping an infrastructure bill than killing one. But as they strategize around how to best influence negotiations, and keep Manchin and the moderates from calling all the shots, they should remember: bluffs can be called, especially by presidents.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"