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Here’s How the Build Back Better Act Will Get Enacted

If you think that Biden’s big social provision bill is dead, think again. And again, and again.

President Biden gestures with both hands while closing his eyes.
Roberto Schmidt/Getty Images

Throughout several months of intense negotiations, progressive Democrats have insisted on bringing the Build Back Better Act, or BBB, to a vote before the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Their strategy has rested on the not-implausible belief that conservative Democrats might withhold support for President Biden’s social provision bill if infrastructure got enacted first. Much like the parents of squalling children, progressives implored everyone to finish their dinner before moving on to dessert.

But last week, a sufficient number of Build Back Better’s guardians relented and allowed the infrastructure bill to pass in the House, thus relinquishing their leverage. So what’s in store now for the BBB, the $1.75 trillion social spending package that includes critical provisions for childcare, health, and saving our planet? I was initially skeptical that it had a future, but perhaps this is unnecessarily cynical. After all, the BBB has stuck it out this long and is still slouching toward the Oval Office. If we’re throwing in the towel, we should at least base it on a realistic analysis of what external forces may determine its future. So let’s examine if any such forces exist.

We can start with some good news: Soon after passing the infrastructure bill, the House Democrats who’d previously opposed Biden’s social spending plan agreed to back a procedural vote to queue up a House vote on the BBB and pledged to vote on it no later than November 15. Securing this pledge was apparently vital to ensuring that progressives approved the infrastructure bill. Sure, there’s no real enforcement mechanism to keep that pledge in place, and some of the obstructionists, like Representatives Josh Gottheimer and Kurt Schrader, have already made other promises to corporate interests seeking to undermine the BBB. But people can change, right?

Of course, in keeping with the Spirit of Infrastructure, these once (and perhaps future) Democratic holdouts have built themselves an off-ramp. These lawmakers made it clear that they’ll want the Congressional Budget Office to ensure “that this bill is paid for and does the responsible thing fiscally,” as Gottheimer put it. It’s hard to know what this means in practice, but the House holdouts have agreed to “resolve any discrepancies” should they arise from the CBO’s analysis.

But even if the House’s BBB skeptics decide to vote for the bill, there is another force at work: the relentless march of time. As CNN reported this week, the CBO initially stated that it couldn’t predict when it would be able to release its conclusions on the bill. Since then, though, it’s given lawmakers something to work with, releasing some preliminary estimates. But a complete take from Washington’s budget metaphysicians remains elusive, jeopardizing the hoped-for November 15 vote.

There could be other delays, too. Should the agency’s analysis cause more consternation, House Democrats will have to spend additional time in negotiations. Further reporting from Politico suggests that Senate Democrats are also very antsy about the need to pass a long-delayed defense spending bill ahead of the BBB. And in early December, Democrats will once again have to resolve the debt ceiling to prevent economic calamity. All of these factors threaten to push the BBB close to 2022, when lawmakers go into midterm mode and get real, real skittish about passing major legislation.

Still, Democrats have been facing these deadline challenges all along and are resolved to get the BBB out of the House and send it back to the Senate, where—oh, snap!—Joe Manchin awaits. The West Virginia senator, who is icy toward a bill that stands to help his constituents, hasn’t made any pledge to pass the BBB. Now that he’s got the version of the infrastructure bill he wanted (and which he stands to profit from personally) enacted, Democrats no longer have any meaningful leverage over him. And Manchin, who had taken the view that there ought to be a “pause” on further spending, has new concerns about inflation.

There is also, of course, another senator to consider: Kyrsten Sinema, who is not so much a “lawmaker” as an agent of chaos with inscrutable motivations. Sinema has at least expressed support for the recently included immigration measures stuffed into the BBB—good news, provided those policies survive the Senate parliamentarian’s red pen. However, the larger problem, as The New Republic’s Michael Tomasky noted, is that neither Sinema nor Manchin seems to believe that their political fate is tied to the success of Biden’s agenda or his presidency. Could be a problem in convincing them to budge on, well, anything!

Nevertheless, there remains a path to the successful passage of the Build Back Better Act. As long as (deep breath), House holdouts stick to their unenforceable pledge, the CBO doesn’t throw a spanner in the works, the Democrats sort out their impressively daunting honey-do list in a timely fashion, and Manchin and Sinema become unbeguiled from whatever political considerations currently entrance them, the Biden agenda will sail into being, and then all we’ll have to worry about is … well, you know—the failure to pass a voting rights bill and a hostile Supreme Court.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.