Progressive Democrats on Thursday defied fierce pressure from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and refused to pass a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, flexing new leverage in a bid to guarantee trillions more in the most sweeping social spending plan in a generation.
It is a rare day when Pelosi fails to control her caucus. But the veteran speaker, viewed with awe by many members for her vote-counting abilities, adopted a high-risk strategy of trying to force a vote on the first leg of Biden’s forward-looking agenda. The infrastructure bill, which is the centerpiece of Biden’s outreach to Republicans and his call for national unity, pours tens of billions of dollars into railroads, roads, airports and bridges.
But openly defying her authority, progressives stood firm in their refusal to vote for the bill without Senate action on a companion $3.5 trillion transformation of health care, education and social programs. Despite frantic late-night attempts to forge a framework for that package involving Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, White House officials and two holdout moderates — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — no deal could be reached. That forced Pelosi to finally abandon her push to hold a vote on Thursday, and lawmakers will return for more brinkmanship on Friday.
But the path forward remains deeply uncertain, and dramatic scenes like those on Thursday are only exacerbating doubts over whether Democrats can use their control of Congress and the White House to effectively wield power ahead of next year’s midterms.
In fact, an extraordinary day of dueling rhetoric between the House and Senate sides of the Capitol may have deepened the impasse. For instance, one result of all the recriminations was that Manchin publicly reiterated he wasn’t willing to go above $1.5 trillion for the spending package — a figure far below what progressive Democrats and Biden believe is needed.
Manchin has previously indicated his limit was $1.5 trillion, notably in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” on September 12, which means the Senate leadership has known his position for at least weeks. That raises questions of what exactly Schumer did to try to persuade the West Virginian to change his mind, or to alert House Democratic leadership of a looming problem.
Manchin’s position leaves the fate of the spending plan in doubt and, by extension, the infrastructure bill since progressives won’t back it without getting what they want on social spending and climate change. The stalemate also exacerbates a crush of crises facing Democrats in Congress. They did manage to avert one disaster — a government shutdown — after Biden signed a stopgap federal funding bill until early December. But Democrats must still raise the government’s borrowing limit in the coming weeks, as Republicans refuse to help even at the risk of triggering a government default that could spell disaster for the US economy.
A pivot point for the left
Thursday’s tumultuous events had the feel of a turning point in the Democratic Party. The strength of progressive members of the House, working in alliance with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — the man behind the $3.5 trillion plan as Senate Budget Committee chairman — was the culmination of years of building power.
In the past, as in the effort to squeeze the Affordable Care Act into law during Barack Obama’s presidency, Pelosi has been able to lean on more progressive members of the caucus to vote for a measure that falls well short of their ideals. But the left didn’t fold on Thursday, potentially pointing to a new dynamic in the party.
Pelosi’s decision to push for a vote on the infrastructure bill, which few other members of her leadership team publicly thought could pass, is now likely to be widely questioned. Pelosi, using all her years of experience and influence, appeared to be convinced she could bend her caucus to her will. At one point, asked about the state of play of her last-minute arm twisting effort, she described it as “constant invigoration.”
But the failure to hold the scheduled vote will be sure to dent her authority, and may at least in the short-term temper the mystique surrounding the speaker.
The attempt to secure a late-night agreement from Sinema and Manchin on a package that might satisfy liberal House members always looked doomed. And it infuriated at least one of the major players — Sanders — who denounced it and also Pelosi’s intense effort to force the infrastructure bill through.
“You cannot in my view, have an agreement, two o’clock in the morning that nobody has seen. So, I hope again, the strategy should be to defeat this infrastructure bill,” the Vermont senator said at one point, effectively making it all but impossible progressives would back down.
Manchin appeared to agree and left the Capitol in his car minutes before word came down from Democratic sources that the vote would not be held Thursday night — though with no real clarity on how Friday would be any different.
What now for Biden’s agenda?
But an exhausting day also left questions for progressives. On the one hand, their decision to stand firm and demand they take up the $3.5 trillion spending bill could maximize the chances of the package remaining somewhat intact. But by further delaying passage of at least one big part of Biden’s program, they are increasing the risk that it could all fall apart in what would be a disaster for Democrats.
Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has emerged as a powerful figure in recent weeks, urged her colleagues to “stick to the plan. Pass both bills, together.”
“We won’t let massive corporations, billionaires, and a few conservative Democrats stand in the way of delivering transformational progress for millions of working people,” Jayapal wrote on Twitter.
Still, the progressives are playing a risky game. Manchin in particular appears to have little time for pressure from left-wing lawmakers in the House.
During one of his several huddles with reporters during Thursday’s drama, he said that if progressives want a bigger bill they should “elect more liberals.” The comment reflected the fact that Manchin, who represents a state ex-President Donald Trump won twice, has extraordinary power in a 50-50 Senate since Democrats were unable to do better in congressional elections in 2020.
His moment and Pelosi’s struggles on Thursday also raised another question: Are Biden and congressional leaders trying to thread an impossible legislative needle since they are trying to enact one of the most ambitious Democratic programs in generations with no votes to spare in the Senate and when Pelosi can lose only three members of her own caucus in the House?
A blow to moderates
The delay in the vote is also likely to infuriate moderate House members, some of whom have said that a failure to pass the bill this week would rate as a betrayal by their colleagues. The bipartisan infrastructure spending plan on roads, railroads and transportation is seen by many moderates as a jobs engine and critical to their hopes of holding onto their seats next fall.
Earlier Thursday, one of the leading moderates, Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer he was “1,000%” certain the bill would pass that evening.
“I think it’s tough if you’re a Democrat right now to vote against the President’s agenda,” Gotthemier, a co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, said. “I don’t think anyone wants to tank that, so that’s why we’re going to have to get this done and get this great bipartisan win done for the country.”
One of the most high-profile members of the House progressive movement, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, taunted Gottheimer after Pelosi pulled the vote, in a sign of tensions that will likely make it even harder to pass the bills and possible over-confidence among progressives in their hard-line strategy.
“In Congress, we don’t make predictions like this until we know we have the votes. Some of us get this, others bluff & fall on their face,” Omar wrote on Twitter.
While progressives did not formally vote against Biden’s agenda owing to Pelosi’s postponement of the moment of truth, the impression many outsiders will get is that Democrats cannot get their act together to effectively govern.
There may also be calls after Thursday’s impasse for the President himself to get more involved. White House officials said Biden was on the phone on Thursday with leaders in Congress and he has held repeated meetings and calls with the top players in the debate like Manchin, Sinema and Pelosi.
Yet the President didn’t make a trip up to Capitol Hill on Thursday to try to change the minds of progressives himself. That may have been a wise strategic move to protect him from the kind of rebuke that Pelosi suffered. But it also raises the question of whether he should put more public muscle into the effort given that his agenda is on a knife-edge.