Being Left: Progressives Must Stand Their Ground on Biden’s Infrastructure Bill

Nya Herron, Contributing Writer

The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Thursday night to temporarily reauthorize transportation funding, abruptly reversing course after Democratic leaders earlier vowed to pass a bipartisan Senate-approved infrastructure bill. This followed progressives’ refusal to step down in their opposition to the $550 billion infrastructure bill amid a standoff over Democrats’ separate $1.75 trillion social spending measure.

Despite an aggressive whipping campaign from Democratic leaders, as many as thirty liberal Democrats threatened to block the roughly $550 billion Senate-passed infrastructure bill. Crucial details of the legislation remain in flux, and progressives declared they would not fall victim to pressure to quickly throw their support behind a separate bipartisan infrastructure package that passed the Senate. House liberals want to review the legislative text of the $1.75 trillion social spending legislation that the White House outlined on Thursday and get a commitment of support from centrist Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, which they have not outright given. 

While some liberal priorities were included in the hefty package of climate, health care and other social policy investments, others were scrapped, and multiple House progressives vowed to block the infrastructure bill given their uncertainty about the framework’s future in the Senate. House leaders hoped the framework would be enough to persuade the chamber’s most liberal members that Congress was on the verge of passing a truly progressive package so that those liberals, in turn, would join more moderate and conservative Democrats to send the infrastructure bill to the president for his signature. However, with how the bill looks now, everybody but the left wins: Republicans get major parts of it stripped and centrists get a political win because they managed to get most of their concerns scrapped, as well. 

Biden’s original agenda was divided into two concurrent bills: the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Build Back Better Act. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will allow for long overdue updates to our country’s roads, bridges and waterways. However, it’s the Build Back Better Act that will deliver the child care, climate action, affordable housing, immigration reform and lower prescription drug prices that Americans deserve. The Build Back Better Act provides childcare to women who have been pushed out of the workforce, funds free community college and affordable housing, expands Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing benefits for our seniors and funds millions of green jobs to build our energy future.

The plan is significantly scaled down from Democrats’ initial $3.5 trillion proposal and leaves out many progressive priorities, thanks to negotiations that were necessary to get centrist Democratic holdouts Manchin and Sinema on board. Democrats are expected to scrap paid family and medical leave from their cornerstone economic and climate package, discarding one of the central planks of Joe Biden’s proposal, as they scramble to strike a deal with holdout senators. Important items that have been removed so far include: paid family leave, tuition-free community college, serious climate change regulations, expanded Medicare eligibility, prescription drug controls, universal childcare plus making permanent the tax credit and a tax to target the richest Americans.

Given how much the Build Back Better Act has been slashed, there is more opportunity than ever to bring the heat on Biden for progressive interests. Democratic progressives argue that there is too much at stake for working families and our communities for something that can later be misunderstood, amended or abandoned altogether. Reasoning for this lies in the fact that talk surrounding the infrastructure bill lasted months in the Senate, while the Build Back Better Act has only been discussed in recent weeks. From the beginning of this process, the Progressive Caucus has been clear that the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act are two parts of a whole, so they must be passed together.

Passing the Build Back Better Act will require progressives to stand up to special interests. The investments it makes in improving our economy are funded by getting billionaires and big corporations to pay their fair share of taxes, insisting to Big Pharma that we negotiate prescription drug prices, and taking on the fossil fuel lobby to address the climate crisis. This is why lobbyists for big corporations are trying to strip the infrastructure and social bills. If we allow corporate lobbyists to dictate our legislative agenda, the economic recovery will grind to a halt. 

The Democratic progressives recognize the great potential of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Updating infrastructure is a necessary component to delivering a strong, stable economy that creates opportunity for all. However, equally necessary are childcare, elder care, health care, housing, education and climate actions currently included in the Build Back Better Act. Without both the infrastructure bill and the budget bill, our economic recovery will be slow, unstable and weak.