Moderates Throw House Democrats a Lifeline on Infrastructure Votes
Plus: A conversation with Nebraska Republican Rep. Don Bacon.
Happy Tuesday. Today’s newsletter comes to you smack dab in the middle of infrastructure negotiations in the House, and it’s no less confusing on this side of the Capitol building than it was on the Senate side. Let’s get to the news.
Democrats Overcome Centrist Stall of Budget Plan
The House of Representatives’ August reconvening got off to a bumpy start for Democrats this week: Instead of immediately moving forward on a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint encompassing President Joe Biden’s sweeping legislative agenda Monday, House leadership was forced to call it quits shortly after midnight after centrist Democrats revolted and refused to provide the necessary votes to ensure passage. The haggling and negotiations bled over into Tuesday, when Democrats finally reached an agreement with moderates to move forward.
The pile-up took place as the House prepared to vote, not on either of the bills themselves, but on a rule governing the floor debate under which they would be considered. This rule became a sticking point because the Democrats are divided, not over the contents of the bills in question, but over the order in which the House will take them up. Moderate Democrats wanted to pass the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill before voting on the larger budget reconciliation package that Senate Democrats passed on a party-line vote earlier this month.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sought to woo the centrists by promising a vote on the infrastructure package before current transportation programs expire in October. But it wasn’t until Tuesday that a specific date was promised as a concession for moderates: The House Rules Committee passed a nonbinding resolution calling for a vote on the infrastructure deal by September 27. Then, barely an hour later, the moderates decided they needed a stronger commitment, forcing the Rules Committee to meet again. This time, lawmakers negotiated a provision that made it directly into the rule itself saying the House will consider the bipartisan infrastructure bill no later than September 27.
This means that today’s vote will couple advancing the budget framework with the promise of a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill in September.
The expected vote on Tuesday is merely the beginning, with the final votes to come down the road. The vote on the rule advances the $3.5 trillion budget bill one step farther in the process and gives committees the green light to begin filling in details of the budget blueprint. The committees have a September 15 deadline to fill in those details.
In a press conference Tuesday, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said that despite the controversy over the vote he expects that “it will pass early this afternoon.”
The stand-off between moderate Democrats and House leadership started two weeks ago, when a group of nine centrist Democrats, led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, sent a letter to Pelosi urging her to not delay the vote on the bipartisan infrastructure deal.
“We simply can’t afford months of unnecessary delays and risk squandering this once-in-a-century, bipartisan infrastructure package. It’s time to get shovels in the ground and people to work. We will not consider voting for a budget resolution until the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passes the House and is signed into law,” they said.
They doubled down right before the House came back in town, releasing a Washington Post op-ed on Sunday: “We are firmly opposed to holding the president’s infrastructure legislation hostage to reconciliation, risking its passage and the bipartisan support behind it.”
Progressives slammed the move on the grounds that considering infrastructure as a standalone vote could jeopardize the larger budget bill, which has shakier support among some in the caucus. The 90-plus member Congressional Progressive Caucus said they will refuse to vote on the infrastructure bill before reconciliation is voted on.
Over the weekend, Pelosi released a Dear Colleague letter calling for the infrastructure bill and the budget deal to be passed before October 1. And on Monday, she said in a caucus meeting that Democrats “cannot squander this majority and this Democratic White House by not passing what we need to do.”
Far from caving under the pressure of House leadership, moderates boycotted the Monday caucus meeting and added to their number Monday: Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Florida Democrat who Pelosi recently appointed to the January 6 select committee, came out against voting on the budget framework until the infrastructure package won passage.
“I’m bewildered by my party’s misguided strategy to make passage of the popular, already written, bipartisan infrastructure bill contingent upon passage of the contentious, yet-to-be-written, partisan reconciliation bill,” Murphy wrote in an opinion in the Orlando Sentinel. “It’s bad policy and, yes, bad politics.”
The group also includes Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia, Ed Case of Hawaii, Jared Golden of Maine, Kurt Schrader of Oregon, Jim Costa of California, and Texas Democrats Henry Cuellar, Vicente Gonzalez and Filemon Vela.
Pelosi can only afford to lose three votes, assuming Republicans unanimously vote against the rule.
Pelosi has stuck to a “two-track strategy” that would tie the two massive bills together. And her strategy has the backing of the Biden administration. White House spokesperson Andrew Bates endorsed the plan to combine the votes on the bills in a statement last week, calling the bills “critical elements of the President’s agenda, and we hope that every Democratic member supports this effort to advance these important legislative actions.”
As the House convened to begin debate, Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries told reporters that he was optimistic: “There was never a disagreement about substance. Within the family sometimes there are disagreements about approach. And we’ve worked through the different opinions over the last few hours.”
‘Swimming Upstream’ with Rep. Don Bacon
In the U.S. Congress, the ticket-splitting lawmaker is an increasingly rare find. Only 16 of the House’s 432 members—about 4 percent—represent districts that voted for the other party’s presidential nominee last year. (For the record, the ticket-splitting high-water mark was in 1972, when Richard Nixon trounced George McGovern in the presidential race of 1972 and 44 percent of districts split their ticket.)
Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican representing Nebraska’s Second Congressional District, is one of those lawmakers. He talked with Uphill last week to discuss how he navigates those politics in his district and on Capitol Hill. Plus, the retired Air Force brigadier general discussed his disappointment with the Afghanistan withdrawal, his role in the infrastructure negotiations in the House as a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, Donald Trump’s role in the Republican Party going forward, and more.
The interview is below and has been edited for length and clarity.
Ryan: What are your thoughts on everything going on in Afghanistan?
Rep. Bacon: Well, it’s a colossal disaster for our country. Our credibility has been hit hard, I would say. Definitely, Iran, China, and Russia will feel emboldened by this. I think they perceive weakness out of the administration. I think it’s going to strengthen their hand out there. Also, our allies, particularly in the Middle East, are going to wonder, “Can we depend on America?”
And I think this was totally avoidable. We had 2,500 troops in garrison. They were not in combat roles. They were doing logistics, intelligence, they were doing maintenance, things like that in the background. We haven’t taken a fatality in a year and a half, right? But we had combat airpower, and combat airpower is what held the Afghan military together. … That is why the Afghan military collapsed. They’re used to having power. For two decades they had our airpower, and it just went away.
Ryan: It seems like everyone’s main priority is getting people out of the country that need to get out. Are they doing it fast enough?
Rep. Bacon: Not really. It should have been done months ago. You know, the President announced the withdrawal without having a plan—We’ve been pounding on this since the spring. I voted July of 2020 to not do the withdrawal. We had a residual force that was getting the job done. And I foresaw that if you pull that out, we’re gonna have the Taliban run Afghanistan, and they’re allied with al-Qaeda, and they’re gonna get a safe haven again. There are 40 other terrorist organizations affiliated with the Taliban. So I only see bad things ahead.
But right now the job is to get folks out. American citizens first, those who served by our side there. And it should have been done months ago. Right now it’s chaos.
Ryan: Withdrawing from Afghanistan was just as much a Trump policy as it is a Biden one. Was this result inevitable? Does the Biden Administration have a point to say “Trump kind of set this in motion, and we’re just following through?”
Rep. Bacon: We used to have a president, Truman, who said “The buck stops here.” And President Biden keeps pointing his fingers elsewhere. It’s really unbecoming. You know what I think the Americans wanted to hear yesterday? “It is my responsibility, and we should have done better.”
Rep. Bacon: Now, you’re right, President Trump negotiated with the [Taliban]. I know last March or April when I first heard that the president was doing negotiations—I’m never against negotiations, nobody likes war. So I applauded the effort. I said right up front, “You can’t trust these guys.” And the timeline was such that we had time to change it if the Taliban didn’t, you know, meet conditions. President Trump himself said it was conditions-based, where he could turn it around and change it if the Taliban weren’t earning it.
Having said that, by July 2020 I became critical of what President Trump was doing. One, we were negotiating without the Afghan government. That’s not right. I’ve criticized that in committee hearings on CSPAN; it wasn’t done in private.
Bottom line, I became critical way before the election of where we were going with this … So I think I’ve been fair in the criticism. With President Trump, would he have withdrawn the forces based on what the Taliban were doing? We don’t know that for sure. He kept saying it was conditions-based. Two, would he have done it the same way? We don’t know. But in the end, President Biden accepted the plan and then did the execution of it. And it was done about as badly as it possibly could.
Ryan: Okay, coming closer to home: you’re a rare representative in that you’re Republican, yet Biden won your congressional district in the election. What is that like for you? How do you communicate best to your constituents?
Rep. Bacon: I have to remind our base that we’re not western Texas or western Nebraska. I feel like our district is center-right, but they also didn’t like the name-calling or the Twitter. Last July, for the election, I built my strategy to try to appeal to moderate Democrats and independents. And when we ended up winning in November … the reality was I outpolled President Trump with Republicans by eight or nine points, and Democrats by three points. It was the opposite of what I expected. I think that gives you an indication really of what happened.
If you want to win suburban districts you need to have a different strategy. I think in Nebraska, we call it “Nebraska Nice,” Midwestern values out there. We have a few people on the wings that are abrasive, but really the average Nebraskan is pretty darn friendly. But, you know, I get it that there are some districts that are bright red, and are gonna have a little bit different, you know, take with their constituents. Those districts don’t win you the majority in the House and they don’t win you the presidency. If you want to win the presidency and the House, you’ve got to compete better in suburban districts. And we did at the congressional level we picked up 15 seats. And many of those were suburban districts this last cycle.
Ryan: Trump lost a lot of ground with suburban voters and swing voters, yet he’s still seen as the leader of the party. Do you think that’s a good thing going into the next few elections?
Rep. Bacon: Well, we’ll see. We’ve got to get through 2022 first. If we don’t win back the House, the Senate—it’s a little more uphill for the Republicans in the Senate. If we lose one or two seats in the Senate, the filibuster will be gone, we’ll have the Supreme Court packed unless we can take back the House. And so I think that should be our priority, focusing on the agenda, what Speaker Pelosi has been doing. And it has not played well.
Now, 2024, there’s going to be a debate in our party of who’s going to be our standard-bearer. I think that if you look at the numbers right now, the president will compete pretty well in the primary. You got bright red districts where that is a dominant voice, but I don’t think that’s where the country will be after the general election. I think there are some great candidates.
I’m a big fan of [South Carolina Sen.] Tim Scott, for example. I also think that [Gov. Ron] DeSantis has done a pretty impressive job down in Florida. I’m a big fan of [South Dakota Gov.] Kristi Noem. I’ve gotten to know her real well; I served with her. I love Nikki Haley. So, we have some good folks in 2024 to look at.
Ryan: Let’s talk about January 6. Have you been disappointed in how the aftermath has turned out, specifically on the bipartisan commission?
Rep. Bacon: I thought the bipartisan commission was a smart move because it was 50/50 in membership; there’s a timeline for the commission to end. I knew that if we didn’t get it, Nancy Pelosi was going to do a select committee. … I think frankly the bigger story on this commission is the fact that Speaker Pelosi kicked off two of our members. It’s only happened three times. All three times in this Congress. We’re furious. It has really thrown gas on the partisan vitriol that’s in the Congress. And Speaker Pelosi was the one pouring the gas on the fire.
Ryan: Let’s talk about infrastructure. How do you see that playing out in the House?
Rep. Bacon: I generally support the $1.2 trillion plan. I helped put that together in the House; I’m on the Problem Solvers Caucus. And we came up with an about $1.2 trillion plan, and then the 20 senators took it and said, “Okay let’s take it over here we’re gonna take it over, and we have to get a 60 seat, you know, something to do it enough to get a bipartisan group out of the Senate,” and it happened.
Ryan: What does it say about bipartisanship right now in Congress that the one issue that most people agree the country needs might not pass the House?
Rep. Bacon: Well, if Speaker Pelosi put this on the floor as a standalone vote, I think it will pass. But she’s holding it hostage with the $3.5 trillion package. They’re not gonna get a single Republican vote for that.
But, you know, this is something I’ve seen since 2017. Whoever has the majority in the House, it’s not good enough to find a bipartisan consensus—they have to try to get a 100 percent solution that fits their conference, and they could pass it out by party-line vote. I think we did that a lot in the 115th Congress, and the Democrats really did in the 116th Congress, and they’re doing it right now the 117th Congress. Whereas the right answer is to find the bipartisan solution. It’s not in our culture in the House.
Ryan: How do you change the culture long term? This doesn’t seem like a sustainable method.
Rep. Bacon: Well I think voters have to demand that they want action. But I think the problem is only about 50 districts are purple. And you have about another 380 or so that are bright red or bright blue.
Constituents want infrastructure. They want hard infrastructure. They don’t buy the AOC line that babysitters are infrastructure. In the end, I think we need to have some pragmatic conservatives and pragmatic Democrats that are willing to make deals and find areas of agreement. If we get we can’t get that done, Congress is in gridlock. And when Congress is in gridlock. It enables a more active executive and a more active judiciary. And out of that, the legislative branch has now become the weakest of the branches because of our partisan culture that we have.
Ryan: What do you make of lawmakers that get elected and feel like their main job is to go on TV and talk and not legislate? I’m not going to name any names—
Rep. Bacon: I have a few in mind. [LAUGHTER] I do hear it all the time in Congress: there are show horses and workhorses. I’m not opposed to getting on TV, but I’d rather get on local TV, local radio, because in the end I really want to communicate with our constituents.
But I think good policy is good politics. So if you can show that you’ve made—for example, our Air Force Base, outside of Omaha, a third of the base was destroyed during a flood. If you can work hard and get that repaired, that’s good policy and that’s good politics, too. I’m more interested in delivering results for the district and being a pragmatic conservative voice on issues.
People say, “Hey, Don, we want you on Fox more fighting the fight.” But in the end, everybody’s got to appeal to their constituents, and I would say you know a lot of folks that are on TV a lot, you know, they’re from districts that are R plus 25, or 30.
Ryan: Back to House GOP leadership: do they give you enough deference in Congress to actually have legislative wins that you can take home to your district?
Rep. Bacon: I’ve been very appreciative of Paul Ryan first, but also Kevin McCarthy, Steve Scalise. They make it pretty clear, hey, we’re gonna give you recommendations of where we stand, but you work for your district, and if you have to vote differently, just let us know. And they have never once tried to strong-arm me on a vote.
Ryan: And they’re not saying that with a wink and a nod?
Rep. Bacon: No, I will tell you they’ve been very legit. McCarthy and Scalise have been very good on respecting that I work for my constituents—our constituents and not for them.
Ryan: Okay, one more question. Why are you doing this? Why put yourself through this every two years?
Rep. Bacon: Well every two years is hard, especially in an R +1 district. I felt like I’ve never had an easy election, I always feel like I’m swimming upstream every election, we’ve worked hard. But why do I do it? I’m a believer. I think God has given me a passion here. And I think God makes us all unique, and you’re supposed to follow your energies where God’s given you talents.
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Correction, August 24, 2021: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this newsletter referred to Kristi Noem as the governor of North Dakota. She is the governor of South Dakota.