Josh Gottheimer
Congressman Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat from New Jersey, speaking at a press conference organized by the House Problem Solvers Caucus where Senators and members of the Caucus spoke about support for bipartisan infrastructure deal. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Most observers thought that when nine House moderates dared to challenge Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the tiny group would get pounded into oblivion by her iron gavel.

But the agreement reached Tuesday proved the moderate renegades weren’t playing out of their league. They hold a stronger position this week than last week.

The moderates upended the legislative process by threatening to vote against the next procedural step towards passing the multi-trillion “Build Back Better” centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s agenda until the smaller bipartisan infrastructure bill cleared the House and was signed into law. Tuesday’s agreement falls short of that; the House took that procedural step—passing the budget resolution which triggers the drafting of a filibuster-proof budget reconciliation bill—while simultaneously fixing a date of September 27th for floor consideration of the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

That wasn’t an outright win for the moderates, who added a 10th member on Tuesday. But the agreement does potentially satisfy the desires which drove the moderates’ initial demand: de-linking the bipartisan bill from the reconciliation bill and preventing progressives from wielding extra leverage over them in the reconciliation process.

Vulnerable moderates (as I detailed previously, several of the holdouts represent districts where Donald Trump won more than 46 percent of the vote in 2020) want a clean bipartisan achievement. They want to avoid being attacked in TV and digital ads with having voted with their party’s most loathed member (who will it be this time? Pelosi? AOC? Ilhan Omar?) 90 percent of the time. If the bipartisan bill is procedurally yoked to a larger partisan bill, it’s not all that bipartisan anymore—it may not even get any Republican votes in the House—and the opportunity for electoral inoculation would be lost.

Meanwhile, progressives fear that passing the infrastructure bill first deprives them of the leverage to counter any moderate attempt at reducing the size of the more audacious reconciliation bill. They want to be able to say: Keep it at $3.5 trillion or you don’t get the bipartisan bill.

On its face, setting a fixed date for consideration of the bipartisan infrastructure bill one month from now doesn’t automatically advantage either camp. Reconciliation could pass before or on September 27th, benefiting the progressives, or pass after September 27th, benefiting the moderates.

But the calendar tilts in the moderates’ favor.

Deadlines tend to force action, and we have one coming up: a September 30th “highway cliff.” That’s when existing authorization for federal spending on roads and transit expires. The bipartisan infrastructure bill extends that authority for five years. Letting authorization lapse by keeping the bill in limbo—or passing the bill in the House but having Biden slow walk the bill signing—risks disruption of current infrastructure projects. That would make it hard for Democrats to claim they are Building Back Better. That makes enacting the bipartisan bill a political imperative.

Pelosi said in a Saturday statement that her intention is to pass “both the Build Back Better Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure bill before October 1st.” Getting the huge reconciliation bill passed so quickly is possible, but a steep challenge. This is arguably the biggest piece of legislation ever attempted in American history, As it stands, there isn’t party-wide consensus on its size. There are plenty of opportunities for brinksmanship over the details. Whatever the House produces likely won’t be accepted by the Senate as is, requiring an eventual House-Senate conference. (Pelosi said Tuesday that the House should “vote on a Build Back Better Act that will pass the Senate,” clearly trying to avoid a protracted process, but potentially causing friction with progressives who want to be far more ambitious than the wishes of the Senate’s 50th vote.)

But the reconciliation bill lacks an imminent “cliff” propelling a quick resolution of disputes (though there is one at the end of the year, when the expanded child tax credit and enhanced Affordable Care Act subsidies enacted in Biden’s American Rescue Plan would expire without an extension—creating, in effect, a tax hike for millions of families.) To reach a speedy conclusion requires complete party cooperation but moderates now have the incentive to drag out reconciliation negotiations beyond September 27th, to ensure the bipartisan bill passes first. Progressives could still try to block passage of the infrastructure bill if reconciliation isn’t finished yet, but the highway cliff will make it challenging to whip members.

Post-deal statements from key figures further suggest moderates came out ahead. Moderate Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who negotiated with Pelosi, crowed that the bipartisan bill “will receive standalone consideration, fully delinked, and on its own merits.” In contrast, the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, scrambled to keep linkage on the table, releasing a statement that read: “As our members have made clear for three months, the two are integrally tied together, and we will only vote for the infrastructure bill after passing the reconciliation bill.” Like past Congressional Progressive Caucus statements, Jayapal did not list the names of those members who concur, so we don’t know how many would vote “No” on September 27th—let alone how many Republicans would vote “Yes”—if reconciliation isn’t done yet.

Another reason why the moderates may have accepted this arrangement can be found in Pelosi’s Tuesday statement: “I am committing to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill by September 27.  I do so with a commitment to rally House Democratic support for its passage.”

The ten moderates proved they had the power in a narrowly divided House to grind the chamber to a halt, force the Speaker to meet with them, and discuss terms. They could have further concluded they also had the power to force immediate consideration of the bipartisan bill, by simply continuing to refuse to budge on the resolution and arguing the bipartisan-bill-first path was the lone path to success. But without knowing for certain they could get a majority of 217—quite hard to do in advance without Pelosi’s assistance—they would be making a risky gambit. Instead, the moderates secured a pledge from Pelosi that she would whip on their behalf, a safer course of action.

An observation I made in this space twice was that while Pelosi had given the impression that she was insisting that the Senate must pass a budget reconciliation bill before the House would bring the bipartisan infrastructure bill to the floor, she had at times used verbiage that left open the possibility that the precursor budget resolution would be sufficient. What happened this week? The House passed legislation that literally linked passage of the budget resolution with a fixed date to consider the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Nothing is codified linking the fate of the bipartisan bill to the fate of reconciliation.

Is this the outcome Pelosi had planned all along? Or did she truly want to tie the bipartisan infrastructure bill to the partisan reconciliation bill, as progressives demanded, and only backed away in the face of the moderate threat?

We’ll probably never know. But we know the moderates are smiling.

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.