Joe Biden, Democrats in Congress
President Joe Biden walks in a basement hallway of the Capitol to meet with House Democrats, on Capitol Hill Washington, Thursday, October 28th, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

If you’ve ever tried to get a bunch of things done before going out of town, you might have some sympathy for Joe Biden.

On Thursday, the president jetted off to Italy and the United Kingdom for a week that will include an audience with Pope Francis, the G20 summit, and a climate conference in Scotland. Biden’s departure was also a deadline for Democrats to come up with a deal for the much-thrashed Build Back Better Act.

Of course, they didn’t. Almost as soon as a Build Back Better framework emerged late Wednesday, Democrats of various stripes said everything but “Yes,” which is what you want to hear when you propose marriage or have been debating legislation for months. House members from the Northeast waxed optimistic but weren’t signing on until the state and local tax deduction (SALT) was more firm. The professionally recalcitrant Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema were encouraging but not definitive. The enigma in pink, Sinema issued a  statement mentioning her fruitful negotiations with the White House, conspicuously omitting her congressional colleagues.

Progressives were clear that until Manchinema committed to voting for the plan, they weren’t going to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate with 67 votes, including Mitch McConnell’s. Squad member Rashida Tlaib left the meeting of the Congressional Progressive Caucus on Thursday saying “Hell, no,” there’d be no vote on bipartisan infrastructure until the Build Back Better bill was completed and agreed to by Manchinema. On Wednesday, another holdout, Representative Ilhan Omar, launched a Twitter thread that embodied the left’s cri de coeur, deriding all the things cut out of the bill, such as free community college and paid family leave. The Democrat said those benefits died because “Corporate Democrats” were manipulated, lobbied, and bullied by big business. It wouldn’t be a pronouncement from Omar without an allusion to “shadowy” groups pulling strings.

With this kind of sniping, can Democrats, as the president said on Thursday, “get this done”? Biden had gone to Capitol Hill on Thursday morning to tell Democrats, “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week.” That wasn’t exactly news to anyone, but reiteration can concentrate the mind. (I’m in a slim minority of folk who don’t think their future depends on this.) In the afternoon, from the East Room of the White House, whose grandeur and size communicates both the power of the presidency and the loneliness of command, the 78-year-old president tried to breach the ideological divisions by saying that the bill’s provisions “are not about left versus right, or moderate versus progressive, or anything else that pits Americans against one another.” Biden added, “This is about competitiveness versus complacency.”

Nice try. I’m not sure the framing of the bill as essential to, say, competition with China will prove persuasive. You could certainly argue that clean energy, education, and other provisions will help our global standing and economic might. But at this point, the appeal to electoral survival was a richer vein.

There were signs that some of the ideological walls were coming down. Representative Pramila Jayapal, who, after Sinema, has probably had her profile raised most by this contretemps and who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Biden’s framework was “enthusiastically endorsed” by her members, who voted to back it—“in principle,” she added. That’s an essential caveat while the text for the bill emerges. But she allowed, on MSNBC, that many of her members simply aren’t comfortable signing on to the bipartisan infrastructure bill until there is a firm commitment from Manchinema for the Build Back Better Act framework. Jayapal also made it clear that there has to be a more or less coterminous vote on both bills.

For their part, Manchinema didn’t diss the bills, but they didn’t commit, even though they’ve gotten pretty much everything they wanted. Can they take yes for an answer?

They should, and so should every Democrat. The bill isn’t the buffet table of progressive delicacies that the left craved. It’s more like a tasting menu—which you’ll know, if you’ve been to Vegas, is better anyway than pushing your tray, past the sneeze guards, to the cash register. There’s more money for Pell Grants and historically Black colleges and universities but no free community college; Medicare vision expansion but no dental; no paid family leave but a significant extension of the child tax credit that Congress approved earlier this year in the American Rescue Plan. There are more than half a trillion dollars to promote clean energy but none of the coal-killing measures Manchin feared. The most delicious part is that by extending the child care credit for one year, they’re basically daring the Republicans to kill it when and if they take the House in 2023—and rightfully be accused of raising taxes on the middle class. In 2022, smart Democrats will run on extending it.

Manchin and Sinema can go forward and say they slew the socialist dragon, producing a Democratic Party bill that’s not woke and that’s paid for, noninflationary, and sticks to things old-line Democrats like: more money for the middle class, some modestly higher taxes on the wealthy, assistance to seniors.

Progressives get to point to the biggest social spending bill ever. Add the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act to the American Rescue Plan passed earlier this year ($1.9 trillion) and the bipartisan infrastructure bill ($1 trillion), and you’re up to close to $5 trillion in domestic, nondefense spending passed with the narrowest of majorities. Don’t whine. Uncork the bubbly.

Much has been made of Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, and Franklin Roosevelt’s big majorities when they inherited crises. (My favorite fact is that at one point under FDR, 71 of 96 senators were Democrats. Even allowing that many were conservatives . . . wow.) In a different world, Kyrsten Sinema would vote like Mark Kelly and Joe Manchin like Robert Byrd. That’s not the world Democrats live in. Here on planet Earth, they’ve done as well as you can.

There were plenty of mistakes along the way, sure. Tops was never prioritizing what matters most and not selling each element better. When you ask for everything for Christmas, you’re taking your chances with Santa. Same here.

I’d note that they should have added a dose of humility, saying they can always fix what’s not working and run on adding more later. If the big community violence prevention grants—some $5 billion—don’t work, you can rescind them. Manchin and others have feared that a child tax credit without a work requirement could disincentivize work. The work requirement never made it in, but it could be added later if their worries prove justified. This bill, like the New Deal or Great Society, isn’t a one-shot thing. It will evolve and grow. Too many Democrats have treated this like it is their last shot ever at getting something passed. Too many skeptics like Manchin have treated it as irrevocable. Nothing is.

I’ve always thought they’d get to “Yes” because no Democrat, in the end, wants to be standing over the chalk outline with gunpowder residue on their hands and blood on their clothes. Killing a bill this big is a mortal sin, not a venial one. I still feel that they’ll pass this. But more than ever, I think the final package is in Democrats’ interest and shouldn’t be a close call.

Matthew Cooper

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattizcoop. Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.