Congressman Jim Costa
Congressman Jim Costa, a Democrat from California, walks up the House steps for the final votes of the week on Thursday, April 4, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Nine moderate House Democrats announced Friday that they won’t vote for the Senate’s budget resolution—a required procedural step before drafting a filibuster-proof multi-trillion budget reconciliation bill—until the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill passes the House and is signed by President Joe Biden. The pushback was as swift as it was incredulous.

Within hours an anonymous “senior Democratic aide” told several media outlets that the moderates were outnumbered by “dozens upon dozens” of progressive House Democrats who refuse to do the opposite and vote for the bipartisan bill before the Senate passes the reconciliation bill. Pod Save America co-host Jon Favreau tweeted to his 1.4 million followers, “This isn’t moderate or centrist, it’s just foolish and destructive.”

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent excoriated the letter from the nine as “a threat to tank the entire process that has been carefully constructed to ensure that President Biden’s full agenda makes it to his desk.” Sargent also reported that “even some moderates think this misguided strategy could scuttle the whole process,” citing Congressman Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey, who told him, “I fear that forcing a vote now would undermine, not advance, that goal” of passing both bills. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait published a similar piece titled, “9 Moderate Democrats Threaten to Tank Entire Biden Presidency,” which accused the group of applying the “suicidal illogic” of “mutually assured destruction.”

The common thread of these critiques is the moderate nine have the leverage to sink both bills—leaving everyone with nothing—but lack leverage to pass the bipartisan bill first. But that argument is based on a numerically unproven assertion that there isn’t a House majority for a stand-alone vote on the bipartisan bill today, and even if there isn’t today, that the moderate threat can’t move votes and induce such a majority to materialize tomorrow.

Here’s what we know and what we don’t know.

We know there are nine moderate Democrats—Carolyn Bourdeaux (Georgia), Ed Case (Hawaii), Henry Cuellar (Texas), Jim Costa (California), Jared Golden (Maine), Vicente Gonzalez (Texas), Josh Gottheimer (New Jersey) , Kurt Schrader (Oregon) and Filemon Vela (Texas)—who said in their letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, “We will not consider voting for a budget resolution until the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passes the House and is signed into law.” In a 220-212 House, Democrats can’t lose four or more of their own and win a party-line vote. So nine votes is enough to block the partisan budget resolution.

But we don’t know exactly how many progressives are prepared to follow through on the opposite threat.

Everyone insisting that they have the votes to force Senate passage of reconciliation first has been weirdly imprecise regarding how many votes they actually control, and whose those votes are. “Dozens upon dozens” isn’t a firm number. Nor was Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s assertion earlier this month that the number is in the “double digits.”

Perhaps they’re basing their claims on the open letter sent to Pelosi by three members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus leadership—Democratic Congresswomen Pramila Jayapal (Washington), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) and Katie Porter (Calofornia)—which said they “concluded an internal survey of its 96 members” and found a majority “affirmed that they would withhold their votes in support of the bipartisan legislation in the House of Representatives until the Senate adopted a robust reconciliation package.”

But how many of the 96 constitute “our respondents”? And what are their names? It’s one thing to respond in a private survey. It’s quite another to take a public stance, as the moderate nine have.

Representatives Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat from New York, Cori Bush, a Democrat from Missouri, Mondaire Jones, a Democrat from New York, and Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan, at least, have made statements on Twitter indicating they would vote No if the bipartisan bill came first. But notably, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat from Massachusetts, in an NPR interview, while associating herself with the Progressive Caucus letter, said the following when asked directly if she would vote for the bipartisan bill: “I’ll make a decision when it’s time to vote, you know, when there’s a bill in front of me.”

Moreover, the survey was taken before the moderates’ threat. Politicians have been known shift positions using the excuse of a new development, something that is even easier to do when you haven’t taken a public position yet. We don’t know if that survey would produce the same result today, or in a few weeks.

The other major unknown is how many House Republicans would support the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill which, unlike the budget resolution, is bipartisan. Nineteen of the 50 Senate Republicans voted for it (a 20th Republican, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, voted to overcome the final filibuster and proceed to an up-or-down vote.) And the bipartisan co-chairs of the House Problems Solvers Caucus, which includes 29 House Republicans, support the bill. We don’t know if all Problem Solvers would vote Aye, or if any Republicans who are not Problem Solvers would do the same. Until we know how many Republicans are on board, we don’t know how many Democrats are needed to reach, or deny, the magic number of 217.

In other words, we know what leverage the moderate holdouts have. We don’t know what leverage the progressive holdouts have. The moderates may be outnumbered by the progressives, but that doesn’t mean they have less power. With the House margin so narrow, power flows more from intransigence than mere numbers.

In fact, on Sunday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi implicitly acknowledged the moderates’ leverage and announced plans to combine the budget resolution and the bipartisan infrastructure bill in a single “rule,” the procedural step taken by the House before proceeding to debate on the floor and a final vote. Such a rule doesn’t fully satisfy the moderates’ demand. It wouldn’t guarantee a final vote on the infrastructure bill, let alone Biden’s signature, before the reconciliation process is completed. But it does takes them one procedural step closer to that outcome.

(As I’ve written here previously, Pelosi has used language leaving the door open to treating Senate passage of the resolution as sufficient for proceeding to the bipartisan infrastructure bill. On Sunday, in response to a Twitter post of mine, Pelosi’s Deputy Chief of Staff Drew Hammill tweeted, “There is no change in position here. Senate still must pass reconciliation bill before House BIF final passage.”)

Perhaps with an interest in shaking the rogue moderates’ resolve, their critics are maligning their political competence and underlying motive. Sargent argued, “Every time they make a threat like this, it seems more obvious that they will indeed withhold support for the reconciliation bill later, or at least insist on dramatically downscaling its spending.” Chait suggested some of the moderates are acting on behalf of wealthy interests, and making illegitimate, contradictory demands: “Josh Gottheimer, one letter signer, has been crusading for a restoration of the state and local tax deduction [also known as SALT], a benefit for some of his affluent constituents. Jim Costa, another signer, wants to protect the heirs to massive fortunes from any taxation on their windfall … [T]he moderate Democrats are, in this case, threatening to tank a highly popular agenda of taxing the very rich in order to give broad middle-class benefits … simultaneously complaining about the size of the bill while ordering more expensive goodies for themselves.”

It may well be that these moderates are craven shills for the top one percent. But that doesn’t explain their motivation for insisting on passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill first.

For one thing, the Senate budget resolution already includes the “SALT cap relief” demanded by Gottheimer, as Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders bowed to the power of Gottheimer’s crusading 33-member bipartisan SALT caucus. So it doesn’t help the SALT cause to hold up the budget resolution.

Costa hasn’t won his battle yet to exempt family farms from Biden’s proposed changes to capital gains taxes on estates, as the Senate budget resolution is silent on the matter. But Costa is part of a group of 13 “farm district” Democrats lobbying for that exception. As with the SALT caucus, Costa’s group already has enough people to exert leverage in the reconciliation process, whatever happens with the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Further, only one other congressman in the farm district group is in the group of nine rogue moderates, so there’s little reason to conclude the family farm exemption is fueling demand for a stand-alone vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Costa can fight his capital gains tax fight separately.

Similarly, as far as the moderates’ stated unease about the potential size of the reconciliation bill is concerned, the nine already have the ability to reject any such partisan legislation they deem to be excessive. Heck, Sen. Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema has that leverage in the Senate all by herself, and she’s already said the topline $3.5 trillion figure in the resolution won’t fly in the reconciliation bill. That’s how narrow the margins are. The nine don’t need to be a wrench in the gears now to gain leverage later.

The threat from the nine can be explained with a more straightforward reason, one that both Chait and Sargent acknowledged before ultimately dismissing. “The moderates’ desperation to pass the infrastructure bill is perfectly understandable. It’s a popular bill that has wide Republican support and the perfect issue to support their message that they can work across party lines,” writes Chait. Says Sargent, “The charitable view of the centrist position is that it’s a political imperative for them to campaign in their districts solely on passage of a bipartisan bill with ‘hard’ infrastructure, one that isn’t tangled up in the politics of the reconciliation bill, which is associated with House progressives.”

Several of the nine represent purple districts and would rather sell a clean bipartisan victory to their constituents than explain they have to wait to get money for roads and bridges until AOC gets what she wants. Golden represents a Trump-won district. The second-term Gottheimer won with a smaller margin in 2020 than 2018, as Trump pulled nearly 47 percent from his constituents. The first-term Bourdeaux won her race by less than three points and Georgia Republicans may well make her district redder in redistricting. The three Texans represent Hispanic-majority Rio Grande Valley districts in which Donald Trump hit at least 47 percent, and these may also get unfavorably redistricted by statehouse Republicans. However, one of those Texans, Rep. Vela is not worried by 2022, because he’s retiring. So progressives and party leaders have a different challenge with him; Vela can’t be pressured with short-term political considerations.

Instead of trying to shame the moderates into submission, a better idea for progressives would be to listen to them, understand their needs, and maybe even gain the trust that they will soon enough need to support a sizable reconciliation bill with transformational new programs and initiatives, even if the topline is not quite as big as progressives want.

As Sargent notes, “The only way to make this work is to make both factions happy at the end of the day” through Biden’s two-track strategy. But it’s still a two-track strategy if the first train reaches the station this month, and the next one comes in a couple months later.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.