Why House Democrats Face ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’

Progressive and moderate Democrats are in a standoff over the party’s major bills — and each side has leverage over the other at the same time.,

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The House voted along party lines on Tuesday to start hashing out the details of a $3.5 trillion partisan package to enact huge swaths of President Biden’s economic and social agenda, while setting a deadline of Sept. 27 to act on a $1 trillion bipartisan package for physical infrastructure.

The vote, however, came a day later than expected, after a day of frantic negotiations among Democrats.

Why? Here’s the short answer: As a train carrying the policy agenda and political fate of the Democratic Party chugged by, 10 members of the party’s 220-member House caucus brought it to a screeching halt, let it start up again in exchange for a three-day shift in an unenforceable deadline, and declared victory in “decoupling” two cars that are still quite clearly coupled.

The longer answer starts with the fragility of the Democratic caucus, which controls Congress by the narrowest of margins and includes an uneasy alliance of progressive and conservative factions, either of which is capable of blowing up the train.

Democrats’ 220-212 majority in the House means that, assuming no Republican support — a safe assumption in most cases — they can afford as few as three defections on any bill. At least 10 conservative-leaning members are willing to threaten the $3.5 trillion partisan bill. A group of liberals is willing to block the $1 trillion bipartisan bill, far more than the likely handful of Republican votes can make up for.

What party leaders have going for them is that the members who could blow up the partisan budget bill really want to pass the bipartisan infrastructure one, and vice versa. As Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House majority leader, told the Democratic rank-and-file on Monday, “this is mutually assured destruction.”

The analogy is apt. In its original, Cold War context, the term “mutually assured destruction” referred to the understanding that the United States and the Soviet Union each possessed enough nuclear weapons to annihilate the other — and that, therefore, it was in neither country’s best interest to do it, because it would be annihilated, too.

This is not a kingmaker situation in which a small faction capable of tanking legislation extracts concessions in exchange for their votes. That happens all the time. Just look at Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

What makes the current situation in the House so unusual — so, well, mutually assuredly destructive — is that each side has leverage over the other at the same time.

If that remains the case, it’s likely that both bills will pass, securing a sweeping legislative legacy for the Biden administration and the Democratic Party. But if the mutual leverage disappears, the whole enterprise falls apart. To avoid that, Hoyer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House leaders settled on the “two-track” strategy, in which the bills move forward in tandem, and Biden is on board.

The trouble is, tying the bills together to assure that they both succeed also leaves open the chance that they could both fail, making it possible that, come the end of September, Democrats will end up with something not a single one of them wants: nothing.

After the conservative faction reached its deal with Pelosi on Tuesday, its leader, Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, said in a statement that the Sept. 27 commitment ensured that the $1 trillion bill would “receive stand-alone consideration, fully delinked, and on its own merits.”

But that is demonstrably not true, because Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in her own statement: “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.”

The conservative Democrats have suggested that the current arrangement, which requires them to support something close to the $3.5 trillion budget bill if they want their $1 trillion infrastructure bill to pass, amounts to extortion. But there is really nothing they can do about it because they need the progressives as much as the progressives need them.

Pelosi promised a vote on the $1 trillion package by Sept. 27, and she promised to rally Democratic support for its passage. She didn’t, and couldn’t, promise to succeed.

Which means the new deadline changes very little.

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