After months of ugly infighting and amid a crushing campaign loss in Virginia, Democrats finally came to agreement on part of President Biden’s sweeping set of domestic policy proposals, moving the bipartisan hard infrastructure bill out of Congress and to the president’s desk.
As is usually the case with major legislative battles such as this one, some lawmakers are coming out of the months-long debate with more political cachet on Capitol Hill and nationally. Others, not so much. Below is a list of some of the biggest winners and losers, coming out of the conclusion of the first chapter of the Biden Build Back Better fight. The list below is limited to House members and others with some interest in the House vote. We’ll assess the Senate later.
Nancy Pelosi: Win. OK, this was a win for the speaker of the House, but it was an ugly win. Much of the holdup in passing the bill was due to the various factions wrangling over the destiny of the $1.75 trillion social spending package. Moderates grumbled about the price tag. Progressives worried that moderates would bolt if the House voted on the hard infrastructure bill separately. In the end, Pelosi was able to oversee a compromise. Progressives got a concession: The spending measure would get a vote by November 15. Moderates got to see their preferred part of Biden’s package move through. Only six Democrats defected—all progressives—while 13 Republicans voted for it. Still, the entire episode was not a prime example of Pelosi’s legendary iron grip on her caucus. It was not an easy fight for Pelosi. And of course, it’s not over.
Pramila Jayapal: Win. It’s undeniable that the Washington state Democrat and leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus came out of this fight more powerful. It’s true that progressives gave ground again and again, but prior to the infrastructure fight Jayapal was very much a niche name, even among political junkies. But her position elevated her to a chief negotiating spot during the closed-door discussions over both parts of the infrastructure package. Moving forward, it will be more eyebrow-raising if Jayapal, as leader of the CPC, isn’t at the bargaining table during high-level negotiations. She moved from being a lesser member of the pantheon of progressive leaders to one of the top members of the movement. She, too, needs Build Back Better to pass for this win to be total and durable, but she’s handled the pressure well so far.
John Yarmuth: Win. For the longtime Kentucky Democrat and outgoing chairman of the House Budget Committee, successful passage of the Build Back Better Act would be a major capstone to his career. Yarmuth, one of those always-quotable Southern Democrats (although Yarmuth represents an urban congressional district), has taken a central role in moving the reconciliation bill through the chamber. He’s kept in close contact with House Speaker Pelosi and argued for using budgetary maneuvers in Congress to pass Democrats’ agenda now and in the future. He’s also opted not to follow Senator Joe Manchin’s example of hewing to the right during the negotiations. Instead, he’s shown that Democrats in red-leaning states can and should push for robust Democratic initiatives, at the very least, when Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the presidency.
Josh Gottheimer: Loss. The idea for Gottheimer was this would be his moment to assert power as the leader of the Democrats seeking to counter progressives’ influence in infrastructure negotiations. There were moments when Gottheimer and his cadre of moderates pushing for a SALT tax were, in effect, endangering the entire infrastructure enterprise. Gottheimer didn’t end up extracting real concessions from other factions of the party, and he and his half-dozen other moderates agreed to vote on the Build Back Better Act “in its current form other than technical changes” by November 15 after it receives a score from the Congressional Budget Office. Those stipulations were really face-saving more than anything else. Gottheimer comes out of this as someone regarded as overly publicity-hungry in Democratic circles but not as effective in stalling progressives as Senators Kyrsten Sinema or Joe Manchin.
Big Pharma: Loss. The pharmaceuticals industry fought hard (really hard!) to kill any kind of prescription-drug-pricing reform in Democrats’ domestic spending push. There were moments when it seemed like exactly that would happen. But as of now (because nothing is certain until it’s certain), pro-reform Democrats have been able to resurrect a proposal for letting Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices and also lowering costs for drugs. It’s not the world’s strongest bill by any means, but any such provision is a definite loss for an industry that’s been pouring money over sympathetic lawmakers in the hopes that they could hold the line. They couldn’t. The three House Democrats who toed the pharma line—Kurt Schrader, Scott Peters, and Kathleen Rice—are losers, too. Yes, they signed onto the watered-down bill, but they caused all the problems in the first place.
The Squad: Loss. Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and the now roughly five other members of “The Squad” group of progressives were some of the most high-profile proponents of voting on an infrastructure bill alongside the social safety net bill only if they were coupled closely together. In the end, The Squad voted against the infrastructure bill’s passage, out of lack of trust in moderates’ assurances of holding a November 15 vote. They were the Democrats who voted against passage, but that didn’t stop the infrastructure bill from moving forward. It also didn’t deter other progressives from voting for the bill. The Squad’s influence within Congress and among Democratic voters is still enormous but perhaps a little less so after last week.
Vaping Industry/Grover Norquist: Loss. Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist actually had a stake in this fight you might not expect: vaping and e-cigarettes. For years now, Norquist has argued that the vaping industry will help the Republican Party up its cool factor. He’s also of the school of thought that vaping will help adults get off more addictive substances. But as Fox Business warned on Friday, the latest version of the Build Back Better Act “is poised to cripple the multibillion-dollar American e-cigarette and vaping industry and could drive tobacco-free nicotine pouches from the market altogether, experts warn.” There isn’t a groundswell of support among Democrats to help Norquist on … anything, really, so this is a hit for Norquist. It’s unlikely to change as Democrats look to move the second part of the domestic policy package forward.