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“Hold the Line!”: Can Progressives Force Passage of $3.5T Package to Expand the Social Safety Net?

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Progressives in the House of Representatives say they will oppose the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would seek a vote on the measure separately from the Build Back Better Act, the $3.5 trillion bill that expands the social safety net and combats the climate crisis. Conservative Democratic Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, who receive major donations from financial institutions, fossil fuel companies and other industries, continue to oppose the $3.5 trillion package. While the $1 trillion infrastructure bill is “kind of a half-measure,” the Build Back Better Act “really could be best described as the Democratic platform,” says David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden canceled a trip to Chicago today so he can stay in Washington, D.C., as crucial negotiations continue on the bipartisan infrastructure deal and the Build Back Better Act. House progressives are saying they will “hold the line” and oppose the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would seek a vote Thursday on the measure without a commitment to also pass the Build Back Better Act. That’s the $3.5 trillion, 10-year bill that expands the social safety net and combats climate change.

The chair of the Progressive Caucus, Congressmember Pramila Jayapal, issued a statement that, quote, “This agenda is not some fringe wish list. It is the President’s agenda, the Democratic agenda, and what we all promised voters when they delivered us the House, Senate and White House,” she said.

Activists from People’s Watch and Sunrise Movement are demonstrating in D.C. this week to pressure House Speaker Pelosi and Democrats to pass the measure through reconciliation. A flotilla of activists took to kayaks and electric boats to demonstrate near Senator Joe Manchin’s houseboat in D.C., demanding, “Don’t sink our bill.” Others confronted Pelosi Tuesday night as she headed into a fundraiser.

ACTIVIST: Nancy Pelosi, will you hold the line on the reconciliation bill, for climate justice, for California? Will you hold the line?

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, President Biden met Tuesday with conservative Democratic Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, who receive major donations from financial institutions, fossil fuel companies and other industries that oppose the spending package.

For more, we begin with David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect. He’s working with The Intercept and The Daily Poster to keep a running count of where progressive votes stand. He’s written a piece headlined “Pelosi Tries to Bulldoze Progressives on the Infrastructure Bill: But she claims it must pass to avoid an expiration of highway funding. That’s just not true.” He also wrote about the “Interlocking Crises in Congress Have Simple Solutions.” His latest book, Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power.

David Dayen, welcome back to Democracy Now! So, tell us what you believe is true. And for people who are not following closely what’s happening in Washington, lay out the two bills, and then talk about what’s being proposed to vote on tomorrow and what isn’t.

DAVID DAYEN: Sure. So, the bill that’s going to get a vote tomorrow — or at least that’s the theory — is the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which was negotiated by centrist Democrats and Republicans. It has $550 billion of new spending on infrastructure over eight years, and that includes things like highways and bridges and broadband and the electric grid and resiliency from the ravages of climate change, and a few other things. It’s at about half the level of what Joe Biden proposed when he put out the American Jobs Plan back in March. So, it’s kind of a half-measure. It was negotiated by Democrats and Republicans, and it’s seen as a must-have for the conservative end of the Democratic Caucus.

The Build Back Better Act, which is, again, as you said, $3.5 trillion over 10 years, really could be best described as the Democratic platform. I mean, this is a massive, expansive bill. Because there are so many elements to it, it’s kind of hard to explain, but it includes ways to reduce the cost of living, which — the biggest drivers of the cost of living: housing, education and healthcare. It has a massive investment in the care economy. So you have subsidies for child care such that nobody in America would pay more than 7% of their income. You have massive subsidies for elder care, for allowing people to age in place and stay at home. There’s a paid family and medical leave program for the first time in American history. And it’s the biggest climate bill that Congress will have ever passed. And I’m leaving stuff out, too. The child tax credit expansion that we saw this year in the American Rescue Plan would be extended for another four years, for example. Progressives —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: It also includes, doesn’t it, David Dayen — it also includes assistance for college education?

DAVID DAYEN: Yes, tuition-free community college. There’s also universal pre-kindergarten in the bill, expansions of Pell Grants, money for historically Black colleges and universities. It’s a major education bill. It’s a major climate bill. It’s a major healthcare bill that would expand Medicare and Medicaid. It’s a major care economy bill. Like I said, it’s kind of the Democratic platform. That’s why progressives are so interested in getting that passed.

And what Pelosi has done — I mean, the whole idea, for months, was that those bills would be linked, so that the moderates in the caucus would get something they want, which is the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and the progressives in the caucus would get something they want, which is this Build Back Better Act. And Pelosi, over the last few days, has delinked those bills. Because they can’t get agreement, or even the semblance of an agreement, from Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, Pelosi has said, “OK, let’s pass this now, and then we’ll work on the Build Back Better Act, which only needs Democratic votes because it’s being done by reconciliation. We’ll pass that later.”

And this is what progressives are rebelling against. They don’t want to lose their leverage. They figure if they pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, then the centrists, the moderates in the caucus, will want nothing to do with the Build Back Better Act, and will only get this bill that was partially directed by Republicans. So that’s the issue.

As you mentioned the whip count, we have listed 24 Democratic members of Congress in the House who will not vote for the infrastructure bill without a reconciliation bill. There was also a private conference call with the Congressional Progressive Caucus yesterday. We’re told that two dozen people spoke up on that call. All of them were opposed, and 10 of those people were not on our whip count list. So, you could have as much as 34 members voting no at this point, and even that might be an undercount.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But isn’t part of the problem that Manchin and Sinema, while they are opposing the supporting a $3.5 trillion bill in the Senate, refused to say what they would support? So there’s almost like there’s a — the Democrats are negotiating with themselves but don’t actually have the position of one side.

DAVID DAYEN: That’s exactly right, Juan. I mean, they’re negotiating with a phantom. Manchin and Sinema have been asked for a week, including on multiple occasions by the president himself, “What will you accept? Give me a top line number. Give me a spending number that you’ll accept.” And they’re refusing to engage. They’re refusing to say what they would be for in this bill. And you cannot proceed to negotiations without getting at least some framework of a top line number. So, progressives say, “We’re not going to pass the infrastructure bill without specifics from Manchin and Sinema.” And Manchin and Sinema are saying, “We’re not going to give you specifics until you pass the infrastructure bill.” So there’s just a complete impasse here.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll go to break, then come back —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And at the same time — 

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I was going to ask: At the same time that they’re juggling these two potatoes, there are two other potatoes, aren’t there, that the Congress is dealing with: the need to pass legislation extending government funding by Thursday and also the debt ceiling? Could you talk about how that plays into these other issues?

DAVID DAYEN: Yeah. Well, it’s just more on Congress’s plate. Now, it does look like there will be a continuing resolution to fund the government that is going to get action in the House and Senate today. So I fully expect that continuing resolution will pass, and we will have government funding extended, I believe, to December 3rd.

The debt limit is the problem. Republicans in the Senate have said that they are not going to give votes to pass the debt limit, that Democrats should do it themselves. They could do it through reconciliation, which is this process that only requires 50 votes. Democrats feel like the spending was built up through the Trump administration and Republicans should be involved in it.

This is a ridiculous law to begin with, the idea that money that’s already spent, that you have to make a law to raise the debt ceiling so that you can borrow to pay the bills that you’ve already rung up. There are a lot of ways that we could just get rid of this thing. The 14th Amendment says that the public debt shall not be questioned. There’s reason to believe the debt limit law is unconstitutional. They could also — there’s a very strange law that says that the Treasury could mint a trillion-dollar coin and use that to offset borrowing authority for a short-term period. Whatever needs to be done to end this hostage taking of the full faith and credit of the U.S. government needs to be done. And if Democrats are going to do this on their own, they need to find a way to do it permanently, so that we’re not in this position ever again.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. David Dayen is the executive editor of The American Prospect. He has written the piece “Pelosi Tries to Bulldoze Progressives on the Infrastructure Bill: But she claims it must pass to avoid an expiration of highway funding. That’s just not true,” he writes. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Carnival of Souls” by Combustible Edison. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue to look at these high-stakes negotiations unfolding on Capitol Hill, as House progressives say they’ll “hold the line” and oppose the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she’s seeking a vote on the measure Thursday — that’s tomorrow — without a commitment to also pass the Build Back Better Act, the $3.5 trillion, 10-year bill that expands the social safety net and combats climate change.

On Monday, Congressmember Ilhan Omar responded to the recent delay of the infrastructure vote on Twitter. She said, “The whip count was right, we aren’t bluffing. When the bills are up in tandem and we will put our votes on the board, that’s the deal.”

David Dayen is our guest, executive editor of The American Prospect, who is following this, to say the least, extremely closely.

I wanted to ask you both about the power of the Progressive Caucus right now, what this means — do you think Nancy Pelosi will put off this vote? — but also, even how Manchin and Sinema are talked about, talked about as centrist or moderate Democrats as opposed to conservative or corporate Democrats.

You have, for example, Joe Manchin, chair of the energy panel, the largest Senate recipient of campaign donations from the oil, coal and gas industries.

And then you have the headline yesterday on Arizona Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema holding a fundraiser with five business lobbying groups that oppose the massive spending bill containing some of the Biden administration’s top legislation priorities, according to The New York Times, which reported that the attendees were being asked to pay up to $5,800 to Senator Sinema’s campaign, saying she opposed the spending bill’s price tag of $3.5 trillion, the legislation also increasing taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations in order to expand the social safety net, improve worker rights and combat the climate crisis. So she goes back and forth from the White House to the fundraiser, David Dayen?

DAVID DAYEN: Right. Yeah, I mean, this is about as close to quid pro quo corruption as you can possibly get, sitting there with business groups who are opposed to this bill. Yeah, I mean, I think “corporate Democrats” is probably the way to do it.

I mean, one thing that’s very interesting is that frontline members — these are the House members that are in swing seats, which are most at risk in the next elections — they support this bill. They support the Build Back Better Act, because it gives tangible results to their communities. It has not been these swing-seat Democrats who have been the problem here. It’s more Democrats who receive a lot of corporate funding who oppose elements of the bill or, in the case of Manchin and Sinema, seem to oppose all of the bill — or, actually, we don’t know what they oppose, because they won’t say. And they’ve frozen the process.

This is a very interesting moment with respect to the Progressive Caucus, though, Amy, because, traditionally, Pelosi has been able to find votes on her left. She has forced the Democrats in the Progressive Caucus to take whatever they can get. And this is a rare moment of activism for the Progressive Caucus. They have really — they have held the line. They have put a lot of credibility into this idea that we’re only going to go in tandem to pass the entire Biden agenda. This was a deal that was cooked up by Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden. They said, “We’re going to do a two-track process.” And progressives are holding them to it. And this really is a major moment, I think, for the Progressive Caucus, for their credibility, for their viability, and to show that they are a force in Congress.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, David, how could the results of what happens in the next week shape the outcome of elections in 2022 and 2024? And also, how do you judge President Biden’s direct involvement here, in terms of him being able to show that he’s a president who, after so many years in Congress, in the Senate, can be able to get the legislative body to act according to his wishes?

DAVID DAYEN: Well, like I said, if you talk to frontline members, they’ll tell you they need this Build Back Better Act in order to have a shot in 2022. I mean, Democrats have to show that they can govern. And the way that they can do that is by getting things on the books that are tangible, that deliver immediate results, things like the child tax credit, $3,600 for children under 6 for all families and $3,000 for kids between the ages of 6 and 17; expanding Medicare to cover dental and hearing and vision benefits; expanding the subsidies in the Affordable Care Act and, for states that have not expanded Medicaid, giving those individuals that fall into that Medicaid gap the ability to access healthcare. These are things that these frontline members think are absolutely crucial.

As far as Biden is concerned, you know, he’s been sort of tangentially engaged. He obviously had that meeting with Manchin and Sinema. He has been frustrated by not being able to get any kind of results out of them. And this really is a moment where presidents do have to lead. And, you know, it’s unclear exactly what leverage he might have over Manchin and Sinema, who really see themselves as these sort of corporate free agents. But whatever stops he needs to pull out, he needs to do it now, because not only does it threaten his majorities in Congress in 2022, but it threatens the ability for Democrats to win the White House in 2024.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, I wanted to put this question to you. We’re looking at the Biden agenda today, and I wanted to ask you about something The Washington Post reported on this week in a story headlined “The curious case of Puerto Rico’s Medicaid funding”: quote, “Puerto Rico was barreling toward a Medicaid funding cliff that it’d go over on Sept. 30. Congress was racing to prevent the fragile safety net program from losing hundreds of millions of dollars. But suddenly — and unexpectedly — part of the crisis was averted. Quietly, the Biden administration interpreted language from recent laws providing dollars for the territories’ Medicaid programs.” This is the governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi, speaking in June to CBS about meeting with members of Congress, as well as White House officials, to discuss the island’s Medicaid program.

GOV. PEDRO PIERLUISI: Yes, I am right now in Washington, D.C., meeting with members of Congress, meeting with White House officials. And yeah, that’s the first topic of conversation. We have a Medicaid program in Puerto Rico, but it doesn’t — we don’t have the same treatment that the states get across the nation. Right now the funding we’re getting, most of it, ends September 30th. So, what’s happened, we call it a Medicaid cliff. Congress will have to address this, because our health program would collapse if it doesn’t. That’s unfortunate. We should have either a permanent participation in this program on an equal basis as the states or at least long-term funding, a 10-year deal, so that we can budget for this and we can provide the basic health services that a lot of our population needs.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I think the problem — yeah, the —

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Governor Pierluisi. If you can explain what’s going on right now?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I think that the problem has been — this is a long-running problem; it’s been in existence now for decades — is that the territories of the United States, of which Puerto Rico is by far the largest and the most important, are always funded when it comes to things — entitlement programs like Medicaid, and even, additionally, with Social Security Disability or SSI, at levels far less than the 50 states. And this is only made possible by Supreme Court decisions that go way back to the early 1900s, the Insular Cases, that basically say the U.S. citizens on these territories are not really part of the United States, and so Congress can thereby legislate differently for them.

And I’d like to ask David, because this is part of, I guess, the continuing resolution that you say will hopefully be passed today. The Biden administration is trying to equalize at least the Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico. And do you have any sense whether there’s going to be a success in that, in the continuing resolution?

DAVID DAYEN: Well, I mean, what the Biden administration did was through their administrative authority, and they actually took action on this to increase the amount available for the food stamp program on a per person basis. They’ve done some things administratively to lighten the burden and to increase this help.

But one big problem is that all of this tied to pandemic relief. And what we’ve seen is the willingness, on the part of the administration and on the part of Congress, to allow pandemic relief to roll off. We saw this with the eviction moratorium, which was then reinstated, but the Supreme Court overturned it. We saw this with unemployment benefits, the extension of those which expired on September 6. There are more programs, like paid leave, which was in on a temporary basis, that is going to expire on the 30th, in addition to this additional funding for the territories, like Puerto Rico. So, this is a larger problem of the pandemic relief slowly fading away, despite the fact that we’re still 5 million jobs down from where we were before the pandemic, despite the fact that there’s still a lot of need out there, and despite the fact that, in the case of the territories, this is a historical inequity that does require some congressional action. So I’m not sure exactly whether that gets fixed in the continuing resolution. I know that the Biden administration is looking to see if there are steps they can take on their own authority to remedy this.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, David Dayen, if you can just talk about what people should be watching out for today? And how can people weigh in?

DAVID DAYEN: Well, I mean, obviously, the first answer is to call your member of Congress. We’re looking like we’re going to have a vote. As you know, there’s a three-vote margin for Democrats in Congress. There are a handful of Republicans that are likely to vote for this bipartisan infrastructure bill, but probably not more than 10. So, if there are at least 13 or 15 or even 20 members who — among Democrats and progressives, who are going to vote against this bill, it’s not likely to pass. And so, this idea that they stand with the deal that was made is — that would threaten the bill.

And, by the way, it wouldn’t kill the bill forever; it would just say, “Look, we’re not going to vote for this until there’s a deal on everything.” And, you know, if the progressives do have enough votes to stop it on Thursday, I suspect negotiations will continue, and eventually, if they get to a deal, then both bills will pass.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect. His latest piece, “Pelosi Tries to Bulldoze Progressives on the Infrastructure Bill: But she claims it must pass to avoid an expiration of highway funding. That’s just not true,” he writes. Well, he also wrote about how the “Interlocking Crises in Congress Have Simple Solutions.” His latest book, Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power.

Next up, we’ll be talking about the German elections, where the center-left Social Democratic Party declared victory in Sunday’s election, putting an end to the 16-year reign of Angela Merkel’s conservative leadership. We’ll speak with Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece, who negotiated with Merkel and international creditors years ago, when they demanded harsh new austerity measures for the European bailout of Greece. We’ll also talk about the new military deal between the United States, Australia and Britain, and what Greece has to do with that. And we’ll talk about the climate crisis and more. Stay with us.

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