Will Infighting Upend The Democratic Party's Goals?

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U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) leaves after a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol. Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) leaves after a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol. Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Democrats in Washington are divided … again.

Here's President Biden:

“A vote against this plan is a vote against lowering the cost of health care, housing, childcare, eldercare and prescription drugs for American families."

But party bickering could tank what Democrats believe is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Today, On Point: Will Democrats let party infighting destroy their own, and President Biden's, ambitious goals?


Rep. Henry Cuellar, Democratic representative for Texas’ 28th Congressional District, an area South of San Antonio that ends at the U.S.-Mexico border. He is a member of the House Appropriations Committee. (@RepCuellar)

Lisa DesJardins, congressional correspondent for PBS NewsHour. (@LisaDNews)

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Democratic representative for Massachusetts' 7th Congressional District. (@AyannaPressley)

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Molly Ball, national political correspondent for TIME. Author of "Pelosi." (@mollyesque)

Also Featured

Earl Pomeroy, former U.S. Representative for North Dakota's at-large congressional district.

Tom Perriello, former U.S. Representative for Virginia's 5th district.

Interview Highlights with Rep. Henry Cuellar

On what Democrats risk losing from party infighting 

Rep. Henry Cuellar: “We have a lot of points in agreement with each other. We certainly want to improve education. We certainly want to improve health care. We certainly want to make sure that we remake the safety net. I think this is what the reconciliation is all about, remaking the safety net. I think we're in agreement. But we got to understand, we are in a legislative process, a legislative process just basically for the history of our country means that there's give and take.

"Sometimes there's a give and take between Democrats and Republicans, and sometimes there's give and take within a particular political party. This time it's the Democrats. Back after 2010, after we lost when we went big in 2010, we lost the majority by going big. And the Republicans then had their Tea Party people and they had their own differences. So the bottom line is we have a lot of things in common.”

Where is the give and take happening right now between Democrats? Representative Pressley expressed frustration that on the Senate side, at least, they're not even getting a number from Joe Manchin. So is there adequate give and take actually happening right now?

“Well, I don't speak for Senator Manchin, I certainly don't speak for Senator Kyrsten Sinema. I do talk to them very frequently. I just talked to them just a couple of days ago. So I talk to him frequently. I do have a number that I think Senator Joe Manchin is willing to go to, but that is his job to talk about that.”

Can you give us a hint about the number?

“He has told me what he can live with. And again, it's not my job to talk about that. He in his mind knows what. I can tell you this is the way he looks at it. And not the number, but let me just tell you the way I think the thought process. Some people — and I was not in the room when they said, Hey, it's going to be $3.5 trillion. Hey, we got to couple the transportation and the reconciliation. I was not in that room. And I don't think Senator Joe Manchin was in that room.

"So what people are doing, some people are looking at here's $3.5 trillion. Let's fill it up with items, and then let's look how we pay for it. He looks at it different. He says, OK, what are the needs that we have? Here's the need. Here's the need. Here's a need. And then let's see what we end up with that number. See, it's a different approach. I'm just saying, the way the senator, I think, is looking at it. I'm not speaking for him. But this is my understanding, my [perception] of our conversation.”

Back in August, you coauthored an op-ed where you said that the progressive caucus is essentially holding the infrastructure bill hostage. What do you promise to do, though, to help get that second social spending bill done through reconciliation?

“Like I said, I was not in the room when somebody came up with a decision to couple this together. I mean, look, we know the legislative process. Before this reconciliation came up, the president was spending all this time with senators to come up with this bipartisan bill. So everybody was, Yes, yes. Let's do this bipartisan bill. By the way, historic. It's a historic bill, number one. And then somewhere down the line in a room, which I was not part of, somebody came up, you're going to couple them together. You're going to hold that hostage, and we're going to be voting on $3.5. I mean, I apologize. I was not in that room.

"So, yes, it was being held hostage. Now it's been decoupled. We're going to vote on this. We're going to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which will be historic. Two million jobs a year for the next 10 years and money for our roads and bridges, broadband, water, et cetera. Now, I also support a reconciliation bill. I do, I really do. I'm a big believer in education. I'm a big believer in health care. Are there some differences? Of course there are.

"For example, some people want to do Medicaid plus and I do Medicaid gap expansion. I think we can do both. I think we can do both. So that's the give and take that I'm talking about. And I commit myself — I emphasize, I commit myself to pass a bill and people call it a reconciliation. That's only a process. I call it remaking the safety net for the most vulnerable people that we have. And I will do that. But again, it's got to be a product that all 50 senators in the Senate can pass, along with a majority of Democrats in the House.”


Interview Highlights with Rep. Ayanna Pressley

If the $1 trillion infrastructure spending bill comes to the House for a vote tomorrow, how will you vote?

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: “I would vote no. If it comes down to it, I would vote no on the roads and bridges bill, in order to hold the line and get the other bill done. We need both. I'm not going to choose between the life and livelihood of the union worker building our roads and the child care worker keeping our babies safe. That's a false choice. And the Democrats are in power and we don't have to give in to these false choices. This is the president's agenda. This is the people's agenda. And progressives are fighting hard to get this done for the people.”

Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema haven't been willing to put forth a number in terms of what they would support in the social spending bill. But there may be a framework that might emerge. Would that be enough for you? 

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: “We have a history in this country of whenever there is a scenario that says, let's take what we can get and we'll get to the rest later. The people that get left behind are the most marginalized. The pandemic has laid bare every inequity, disparity and racial injustice, and they have all been exacerbated. We say we're in the midst of a national reckoning on racial injustice. That means that we can leave no one behind. We can't have a recovery to a pre-COVID status quo.

"... The Massachusetts 7th Congressional District, which I represent, one of the most unequal districts in the country. Child care, second highest cost of child care in the country. Child care infrastructure is not a nice-to-have. It is a must have. That's about the stabilization of our families and our workforce. I have a huge public housing footprint in my district, housing that is dilapidated and falling down around people. It's subpar housing.

"It’s a threat to people's public health because of long overdue maintenance and investments and upgrades that have not happened. And finally, I represent a district that is 53% people of color, 40% foreign born, many of them TPS holders, DACA recipients, many of them the same essential workers that people were offering verbal bouquets to, but now don't want to prioritize a pathway to citizenship for them.

"So physical infrastructure must happen. Human infrastructure must happen. I reject these false binary choices versus a union worker building our roads and bridges, and a child care worker keeping our baby safe and setting them on a successful life trajectory. We need both and they should move in tandem. And Manchin and Sinema, I'd have to be surprised to be disappointed. They have been consistently obstructing.

"I think they have contempt for the American people. And I continue to call on the president to exert the full weight of his presidency, both to abolish this filibuster and to lean on Manchin and Sinema to do right by the American people. The fact that they've been focused on the number and not the substance already indicates the challenge here. The American people, they don't care about antiquated Washington process or DC procedures. They're just focused on surviving every day.”

I heard you say that you think Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema have contempt for the American people, is that right?

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: “Yes, that is how I feel, because they have not heard the cries of the American people in any number of issues. The point is they have been obstructionist and unwilling to do what we're supposed to do, and that is to stand in the gap and to get relief to the American people in the midst of a global pandemic, experiencing a pandemic-induced recession, which has wrought, unprecedented economic hardship. I'm not interested in the political gamesmanship and in toying with people's lives and livelihoods. We have to stand in the gap. We have the majority. And that has to be more than a talking point. It has to mean something. This is about delivering to the American people.”

It does seem entirely possible the Democrats could come out the other end of this process, perhaps with nothing. And then what would the consequences be of that?

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: “I'm not operating in and I don't determine my votes based on hypotheticals. The deal was always that these two bills move together. And we won't agree to anything that doesn't guarantee passage of the Build Back Better Act, we've been saying this all along. So we're not moving the goalposts here. And I reject the scenario there that was offered, because there's no reason why that should be happening. We have the House, we have the Senate and we have the White House.”

This program aired on September 29, 2021.


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Annie Sinsabaugh Freelance Producer, On Point
Annie Sinsabaugh was a freelance producer for On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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