WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden faced the prospect of a significant political setback at the hands of his own party Thursday, as warring and emboldened Democratic factions clashed over a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, delaying a planned vote after negotiations stretched late into the night.
The day began with a renewed commitment from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to deliver Biden what would be his first major bipartisan victory. A successful outcome in the House would send to the president’s desk a bill to improve the nation’s roads, bridges, pipes and Internet connections, a long-sought tranche of spending that has eluded Washington for decades.
Instead, the infrastructure debate unleashed political acrimony on Capitol Hill. As centrist Democrats demanded an immediate vote on the measure, liberal-leaning lawmakers reaffirmed their threat to block it - part of a broader campaign to seek assurances that a second, much larger spending package also would be approved soon.
Democrats on Thursday did band with Republicans on another measure, which funds the government until early December, staving off a shutdown that could have been disruptive in the midst of a pandemic. But the progress proved short-lived, as Democrats returned to the imperiled task of advancing Biden’s economic agenda, with the risk of failure increasingly running high.
“We’re in the same place we’ve always been,” predicted Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, where roughly half of the 100-member bloc previously has threatened to oppose the infrastructure proposal. “We will not be able to vote for the infrastructure bill until the reconciliation bill has passed,” she said.
White House officials and Democratic lawmakers still huddled late into the night to try to break the political logjam. They raced to broker an agreement with two moderates - Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. - who have sought to cut down the size of Democrats’ second package.
Manchin emerged from the lengthy gathering shortly before 10 p.m. sticking to his initial position. He said that any tax-and-spending measure should be less than the $3.5 trillion price tag that many other Democrats initially sought. He said he wanted less than half of the spending levels other Democrats were demanding, signaling that a deal was far out of reach and leaving some liberal lawmakers to call on the House to halt its infrastructure vote.
“You’re talking about a multi-trillion dollar bill,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. “We should not get hung up on a date.”
Pelosi, however, for hours had refused to back down. “It has been a day of progress in fulfilling the President’s vision to Build Back Better,” she told Democrats in a late-night letter.
The uncertain path on Capitol Hill marked a sharp contrast from what lawmakers had hoped would be a more joyous occasion for Biden. And it exposed an ever-growing sense of distrust among Democrats that only added to the challenge Pelosi and other leaders face in governing in a time of narrow majorities.
For the party, though, the consequences for inaction remain great. Democrats believe they seized control of the White House and Congress in the 2020 elections in part by championing Biden’s campaign pledge to “build back better” through sizable new investments in the country’s inner workings. A failure to deliver could damage their standing in the eyes of voters ahead of the midterm elections in 2022, all the while delaying investments and reforms that Biden and his allies already say are long overdue.
“The majority of the agenda that the president ran on that delivered us the House, the Senate and the White House is in the Build Back Better agenda,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., referring to both the infrastructure plan and the House’s $3.5 trillion tax-and-spending proposal. “If we fail to deliver that promise, we have failed the American people”
The stakes also were top of mind for Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who helped craft the infrastructure bill as well as the framework for what became the House’s $3.5 trillion package. Citing the closely watched gubernatorial race in Virginia, where some residents are “real-time voting,” the centrist Democrat stressed Thursday: “It doesn’t help us in Virginia if we can’t get the infrastructure bill done today.”
The source of the Democratic stalemate is the still-forming, roughly $3.5 trillion package that proposes to expand Medicare, combat climate change and boost federal safety-net programs, all financed through tax increases on wealthy Americans and corporations. To safeguard the initiative from cuts at the hands of centrists, including Sinema and Manchin, liberals have threatened to oppose the infrastructure bill that the moderate duo originally helped negotiate.
The blockade for days has thrown the fate of the infrastructure proposal into great doubt, as dozens of liberals have promised to withhold their votes in a chamber where Pelosi can only afford to lose three. But the speaker has vowed to forge ahead anyway, as she sought to fulfill a promise she made to centrists to consider the public-works spending initiative this week.
“Leadership made a very clear promise to people that this bill was going to be put on the floor for a vote,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y. “And if they go back on that, that’s a breach of trust I don’t know if this caucus is going to be able to recover from.”
Speaking to reporters earlier Thursday, Pelosi swatted away the threats from her own caucus, stressing she still planned to vote on infrastructure. She then embarked on a flurry of meetings with the disparate factions of her party as she struck a defiant yet upbeat note: “I’m only envisioning taking it up and winning it,” she said at a news conference.
Biden and White House aides, meanwhile, continued to try to negotiate a deal with Sinema and Manchin to loosen the liberals’ opposition. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at her daily press briefing that talks are ongoing, adding: “We’re working toward winning a vote tonight.”
But as the night dragged on, the political climate became only more complicated.
Lawmakers in the Congressional Progressive Caucus expressed confidence they controlled enough votes to scuttle the infrastructure bill. Talks between centrists and the White House once again appeared to produce no result as well. Manchin and Sinema still refused to waver in seeking massive cuts to House Democrats’ $3.5 trillion package, including limits on that money that would scale back the eligibility of things like free community college. Neither appeared newly supportive of the exact tax increases Biden has proposed, either.
Instead, Manchin doubled down in a news conference, stressing he supports $1.5 trillion in spending, far less than liberals seek, as he said Democrats can’t pursue “everything at one time.”
“I’ve never been a liberal in any way, shape or form,” Manchin said. “I don’t fault any of them who believe that they’re much more progressive and much more liberal. God bless ‘em. . . . For them to get theirs - elect more liberals.”
In a statement Thursday, a spokesman for Sinema declined to share more about her positions, other than to say she had communicated her views directly with the White House. “While we do not negotiate through the press - because Sen. Sinema respects the integrity of those direct negotiations - she continues to engage directly in good-faith discussions with both President Biden and Sen. [Charles] Schumer to find common ground,” said spokesman John LaBombard.
Neither Manchin nor Sinema broached the issue as they attended a private lunch for Democrats early in the day. But Manchin’s words in particular resonated across the Capitol, infuriating liberals, who saw a generational opportunity to secure long-sought spending priorities now in jeopardy.
“It would mean decimating vital, important programs for working families,” warned Sanders, the architect of the $3.5 trillion budget plan, as he ticked off the effects of the centrists’ proposed cuts. “Obviously we could not do for the children what has to be done, we cannot do for seniors what has to be done. We would not be able to do paid family and medical leave.”
“The planet is at stake,” he continued. “We got four or five years before there is irreparable harm, and clearly $1.5 trillion would make it absolutely impossible for us to do what has to be done.”