Pramila Jayapal
Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, Democrat from Washington, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, November 2, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Democrats began the Biden presidency determined to pass the bulk of their legislative agenda through the partisan reconciliation process because they didn’t trust Republicans.

Then, for several months, Democrats didn’t trust Democrats.

Their agenda stalled. Biden’s approval tanked. The Democrats lost the governorship of Virginia.

But last week, trust made a comeback.

House progressives took the word of House moderates that if progressives helped pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill first, moderates would get the bigger Build Back Better bill through the House within two weeks (barring an unexpectedly bad Congressional Budget Office cost estimate).

Congressional Progressive Caucus leader Representative Pramila Jayapal accepted the word of President Joe Biden when he said he would deliver all 50 Senate Democrats for Build Back Better.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, by bringing the infrastructure bill to the floor, not only trusted that the vast majority of House progressives would vote “Aye,” but so would enough Republicans to offset the remaining left-leaning holdouts.

The speaker’s gambit paid off. The infrastructure bill passed. In both the House and Senate, progressives and moderates united to pass the infrastructure bill and move forward on Build Back Better while Republicans provided the margin of victory on infrastructure. Biden had his first positive headlines in months.

Trust has worked better than mistrust.

Rewind to early June, before the initial infrastructure agreement among a bipartisan group of senators was struck. Outside the negotiating room, the mistrust was both palpable and public. Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown told Politico, “[Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell has repeatedly said he wants Biden to fail. And you know the Republican conference doesn’t do anything that McConnell doesn’t bless.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Pres. Biden & Senate Dems should take a step back and ask themselves if playing patty-cake w GOP Senators is really worth the dismantling of people’s voting rights, setting the planet on fire, allowing massive corporations and the wealthy to not pay their fair share of taxes, etc.”

But once the bipartisan infrastructure deal came together in late June, progressive mistrust shifted toward moderate Democrats. Democratic Representative Ro Khanna told Axios, “In my view, 60 to 70 House members won’t support it . . . unless they pass the reconciliation [bill] simultaneously . . . we simply can’t trust that the Senate will deliver on a reconciliation [bill], and to take the word of the institution.”

On June 24, the mistrust boiling inside the Democratic caucus compelled both Biden and Pelosi to rhetorically link passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill with the more ambitious Build Back Better plan to invest in “human infrastructure.” Although Biden quickly walked back his comment that two bills must be passed “in tandem” after Senate Republicans threatened to wash their hands of the infrastructure bill, for weeks Pelosi continued to give the impression that her stance had not changed (though after squishy remarks she made on June 30, I speculated that she was not truly committed to linkage).

Nevertheless, the Congressional Progressive Caucus was adamant about linkage through the summer and into the fall. In an August letter to Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, CPC leaders insisted that a majority of their members “would withhold their votes in support of the bipartisan legislation in the House of Representatives until the Senate adopted a robust reconciliation package.” In a September interview with NPR, Jayapal said the linkage strategy was justified because “there’s a lack of trust on all sides.”

Mistrust paralyzed the Democrats for more than three months. And what did they get out of it? A steady stream of “Democrats in disarray” news coverage, and a drop of about ten points in the president’s job approval number, according to FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics poll averages.

Progressives believed that since moderates couldn’t be trusted they had to take the physical infrastructure bill hostage to enhance their leverage over Build Back Better. That gambit failed. Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema continued to insist on a smaller bill, and the White House obliged by slashing the size of its proposal in half—surrendering large chunks including free community college, paid leave, and Medicare coverage for dental and vision care. The current $1.75 trillion top-line amount of the White House offer is far closer to Manchin’s July position of $1.5 trillion than it is to Senator Bernie Sanders’s initial position of $6 trillion, let alone the amount set in the congressional budget resolution of $3.5 trillion, which progressives repeatedly insisted “is the compromise.” Except now it’s not.

With mistrust producing nothing of value, trust made a comeback. Following Jayapal’s lead, most progressives accepted a stand-alone vote on the bipartisan infrastructure, de-linking it from Build Back Better, based on public commitments from House moderates and the president (and perhaps a private one from Sinema) to get the larger bill passed soon.

On the Monday after the vote Jayapal told CNN, “While we didn’t get the actual vote, and I wish we had, . . . we were in a position where we felt like we got something that was almost as good, which is their commitment. And I do think that if we’re going to rebuild trust, then we have to believe that when they give a commitment publicly, when they look me in the eye and each one of them says to me, yes, we’re going to vote for this, [then] that needs to be enough for us to move forward.” That’s a giant leap from saying six weeks prior that “there’s a lack of trust on all sides.”

Even more astounding is the implicit trust Pelosi put in the moderate Republican faction by bringing the bill to the floor short of complete Democratic unanimity.

The bipartisanship that began with the passage of the physical infrastructure bill in the Senate could not have been extended to the House if the bill got yoked to the Build Back Better bill, as no Republican could tolerate a vote for the former being perceived as a vote for the latter. Meanwhile, moderate House Democrats wanted to replicate the Senate and keep a modicum of Republicans on board, so they would have an indisputable bipartisan success to tout at home. They need to inoculate themselves from the inevitable midterm election attack ads portraying them as Pelosi puppets or Ocasio-Cortez comrades.

As she moved to bring the Senate infrastructure bill to the House floor, in the final hours, Pelosi managed to satisfy all camps—distancing the bill from Build Back Better to attract sufficient Republican support, securing enough commitment from the moderates on Build Back Better to hold the bulk of progressive support.

Knowing that six Democrats were planning to vote “Nay” (and believing that only two of them could be flipped if necessary), Pelosi still needed a few Republicans to cross the aisle. Thirteen did, providing the margin of victory. In fact, without the 13 House Republicans and the 19 Senate Republicans who voted yes, the physical infrastructure bill would not have passed either congressional chamber.

Plenty of folks thought that Republicans would never provide the margin of victory for any Democratic priority. The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman, after noting that Republicans failed to pass an infrastructure bill when they had full control of Washington, concluded back in May, “They certainly don’t want those bridges and roads fixed so badly that they’ll give Democrats a big political win in order to make it happen.” In July, David Dayen of The American Prospect declared that “Republicans are proving themselves untrustworthy in policy negotiations,” which meant that “this bipartisan deal was always going to be a Lucy-and-the-football scenario.” “Republicans Won’t Help Save It” if Democrats were short on votes, predicted New York’s Ed Kilgore.

Recent Republican history of intransigence buttressed such sentiments. But what makes for plausible punditry doesn’t always make for legislative strategy. Mistrust can make politicians fail to try, even though not trying guarantees failure.

Will trust beget more trust? That depends on whether the parties and caucuses choose to come up with more confidence-building measures.

First, moderate Democrats have to follow through on Build Back Better. Manchin and Sinema have been busy shaping the bill to their liking, so they should support it. Besides, if they killed it, the Democratic circular firing squad would jeopardize the already slim Democratic chances in the 2022 midterm elections. Do Manchin and Sinema really want to doom Senators Mark Kelly, Catherine Cortez Masto, or Michael Bennet?

Second, the breakaway Republicans can’t be punished by either their Republican congressional colleagues or their constituents. Whether they can avoid serious blowback is uncertain. Representative Fred Upton, a veteran moderate Republican, has received more than 1,000 threatening phone calls after he had the temerity to vote for roads and bridges—though his spokesperson told The Detroit News that more than 90 percent of the calls came from outside his district. Donald Trump said the Republican supporters “should be ashamed of themselves,” and Punchbowl News picked up murmurs from House backbenchers who want to strip the aisle crossers of committee assignments. But McConnell is trying to give them political cover, praising House passage of the bill and touting its benefits for Kentucky. If the 13 House Republicans don’t lose committee assignments or draw serious primary challengers soon, additional Republicans might conclude that bipartisanship is not poison.

Trust needs to be trending for Congress to do anything next year. The cold reality is that once the Build Back Better process is finished, what comes next for Biden’s legislative agenda is unclear.

Democrats could try to pass another partisan budget reconciliation bill in 2022, but reconciliation bills have to be budgetary. Policy goals that are not inherently budgetary, such as voting rights, can’t get the filibuster-proof treatment. And after Manchin put so much emphasis on capping the size of Build Back Better, it’s hard to see what else Democrats could do on the tax-and-spend front.

Moreover, bipartisanship is rare in a midterm election year, although not unprecedented. For example, Bill Clinton’s crime bill passed Congress less than three months before the 1994 midterms, with 46 House Republicans and six Senate Republicans getting it over the finish line. (Today, progressives view the crime bill as a punitive monstrosity, but at the time, right-wingers hated the new spending on preventative social programs and dubbed it the “Midnight Basketball Bill.”) With a growing bank of trust between the two parties, perhaps a few more issues can be found with similar mutual interest. As I recently argued here, I believe Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia shows a bipartisan rationale for expanded voting rights. Antitrust might offer another opportunity; Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tom Cotton recently introduced a bipartisan bill making it harder for big tech platforms to acquire new companies.

Will it be easy? No. Would I put money on another bipartisan breakthrough next year? No. But to prematurely give up would be to take the wrong lesson from what just happened with infrastructure. The only way to overcome long odds is to trust and to try.

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.