A simple math experiment should help progressive Democrats understand the limits of their power to push controversial spending legislation through an unwilling Congress.

Even if they had the votes to win approval of a $3.5 trillion spending bill in the House (which they do not), the math isn’t even remotely on their side in the Senate, where Democrats hold a razor-thin majority and two Democrats already have said they won’t back this bill. The progressives have been holding firm based on their conviction that good intentions and the purest of motives — helping poor people, single moms and pre-kindergarten kids, and substantively addressing climate change — would drive this bill to passage.

Their only leverage is the fate of a smaller, $1 trillion-plus infrastructure bill that has already cleared its biggest hurdle in the Senate with bipartisan support. The progressives threatened to vote down that bill in the House unless the spending bill comes up for a vote simultaneously. In other words, they’re holding a much-needed infrastructure package hostage, even if it hands an embarrassing defeat to President Joe Biden.

In one sense, they’re only recognizing the reality of hardball, arm-twisting politics that Republicans have been playing — and winning at — for decades. The only difference is that the progressives are playing this game against their own team.

The result is a massive headache for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she tries desperately this week to wrangle enough votes to avert a disastrous defeat while working under tight deadline pressure to avert a government shutdown and U.S. default on its debt.

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Biden already is on rocky ground because of a stalled domestic agenda, botched Afghanistan withdrawal and horrendous response to the influx of Haitian immigrants at the southern U.S. border. Another embarrassment, especially one delivered by his own party’s left flank, would be devastating. Biden’s public support has dropped to near-Trumpian levels.

Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have been clear that the $3.5 trillion price tag is too high. Even on the House side, some Democrats have expressed major misgivings and are quietly demanding a more politically digestible package.

Pelosi, who was previously reluctant to acknowledge the price tag as an impediment, finally acknowledged this weekend that it’s got to be reduced to something more manageable. The question is how much she can trim it without provoking a progressive revolt.

“This is probably the biggest challenge that she’s ever faced, that we as a caucus have faced. ... I am very concerned that it could fail,” says Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md.

The 2022 midterm elections are fast approaching, and Democrats have precious few victories to brag about on the campaign trail. The progressives’ all-or-nothing gambit seems destined for resounding failure. In the annals of winning strategies, this ain’t one of them.

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