House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had hoped to finally clear late on Thursday a bill that had caused fierce battles between progressives and moderates in her caucus. But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had other ideas.
In a histrionic coda to the bill’s tumultuous stay in the House, the Californian Republican held court for hours — seeking to push the vote late into the night with a meandering and repetitive filibuster-style speech. He touched on immigration, Afghanistan, his own life story and repeatedly hit Biden for high gas prices and inflation, and mixed in personal attacks on Pelosi as his voice began to get hoarse in the early hours of the morning. McCarthy was using the privilege of party leaders to speak for an unlimited time. But Democrats, who branded the stunt a “tantrum,” pushed back the vote until Friday morning and many of their members left, leaving the Republican leader to churn on.
“He wants to do it in the middle of the night. We’re going to do it in the light of day,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said just after midnight. A senior House Democratic aide added: “Leader McCarthy is welcome to continue his raving as late into the night as he wants. The House will return and vote first thing Friday morning so the American people know heading into Thanksgiving week that House Democrats are fighting with President Biden to Build Back Better.”
Despite the delay and months of bitter infighting, House Democrats appear to finally have the votes to pass one of the broadest reforms of education and health care in decades as part of a bill that also includes more than $500 billion for fighting climate change. Hoyer said that he knew of only one Democratic defection — Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, who announced his opposition Thursday evening but did not rule out voting for the final package in the future. The Democratic majority in the House is so small that Pelosi needs almost every member to back the bill since it’s likely to be uniformly opposed by the GOP, which is one reason why getting it to this point has been so difficult.
The bitterness and sense of chaos in McCarthy’s speech epitomized the turmoil that has raged around the Build Back Better bill for months. In fact, the spectacle of Democrats squabbling over its size has obscured for the public much of what’s in the package. And while it represents a cornerstone of Biden’s agenda and is intended to ease economic troubles facing millions of Americans, polls show that many voters believe the President is not addressing the nation’s most important issues at a time of rising inflation and high gasoline prices.
But while he attacked the bill, the Democratic caucus and the President, McCarthy may also have had other motives. He is facing increased pressure from allies of ex-President Donald Trump, including the former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who suggested on Thursday that Trump should be elected speaker if the GOP wins the House next year. McCarthy has done everything he can to shield the ex-President from the consequences of his coup attempt and to turn his party into a compliant tool in Trump’s political arsenal. But leading the charge with an hourslong speech that frustrated Democrats will certainly guarantee McCarthy plenty of coverage on social media — and may garner praise from Trump himself.
Uncertain fate in the Senate
The bill has threatened at times to rip the Democratic Party apart, has survived several brushes with extinction and may still doom some threatened lawmakers in the midterm elections if it passes.
Its fate in the Senate remains unclear. Moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, in particular, wary of its cost, is still uncertain about the scale of many of its programs and the impact of the sprawling bill on inflation. The West Virginian’s reservations, as well as those of Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, will present Biden with a test of his authority and stature since he had pledged to progressives that he would finally be able to get both behind the bill, and assure its passage through the Senate. Some progressives who wanted a much larger package are likely to be disappointed. That will especially be the case if Manchin requires further cuts to the legislation as the price of his support in the Senate, where Democrats cannot afford to lose a single member of their caucus.
Still, the likely House passage of the bill after months of Democratic infighting, which at one point threatened to also scupper the bipartisan infrastructure plan, represents a genuine victory for the President, coming the same week that he signed that infrastructure bill into law. It could boost enthusiasm for his administration among grassroots Democrats he needs to stave off a disaster in next November’s midterm elections. And while it has been roughly halved in size to win the support of moderate Democrats, the measure includes many programs on which the party has campaigned in successive elections. It would provide two years of free pre-K education and vastly expand home health care for sick and elderly Americans. The bill extends for one year a child tax credit that supporters say lifted millions out of poverty, expands Affordable Care Act subsidies, provides a Medicare hearing benefit, and provides tens of billions of dollars for affordable housing.
If it eventually makes it through the Senate, where Democratic leaders are targeting a final vote before the end of the year, the measure will enhance Biden’s claim for a place alongside some of his party’s most significant social reformers. It would also be a signature achievement for Pelosi, potentially even outranking her successful push to pass the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration, and could also be a career capstone for the country’s first female speaker if Democrats lose control of the House next year.
But it’s unclear whether the massive bill will be a political winner in the short-term. While it would validate a core premise of Biden’s case to voters last year that his years of Capitol Hill experience would help him pass big, serious, reform legislation, the bill may not address factors dragging down his presidency. Biden’s approval ratings tumbled after a rough summer that included the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, a wave of Covid-19 infections from the Delta variant after the President said the pandemic was mostly over, and the inflation spike and a surge in gas prices that is leaving many voters disgruntled as the holiday season approaches. It’s also possible Democrats have over reached by trying to pass massive, liberal, social reform bills despite not having been given a wide mandate during the 2020 elections.
Dramatic final hours
McCarthy played into such concerns in his marathon speech, warning that the measure’s “destructive policies” would hammer American workers and families and could help doom the Democrats in the midterm elections.
“It will crush American industries, it will destroy countless American jobs,” he said, comparing the bill to the passage of Obamacare in 2010, when he said he saw Pelosi “walk the Democratic members right down here and pass Obamacare and lose 63 seats.”
The dramatic final hours ahead of the bill’s likely passage underscored the perilous vote that some endangered lawmakers are taking to send it to the Senate. Moderate Democrats had waited until the Congressional Budget Office released its assessment of the impact of the measure on the deficit before agreeing to pass it. The CBO estimated that the measure would result in a net increase of $367 billion to the deficit between 2022 and 2031. The White House, however, insists that the bill will be fully paid for. It says it can make up the shortfall because the bill includes funding for better enforcement of Internal Revenue Service tax collecting.
But the CBO score represents a huge opening for Republicans who will target vulnerable House members next year with their claims that Democrats are on a “socialist” spending spree that will bankrupt future generations — notwithstanding the fact the Republican Party cared little for the deficit when Trump was President.
Republican leaders and allied groups were already seizing on the deficit question in the hours leading up to Thursday night’s anticipated vote. “Representatives Josh Gottheimer (NJ-05), Ed Case (HI-01), Stephanie Murphy (FL-07), Kurt Schrader (OR-05), and Kathleen Rice (NY-04) promised their constituents that they would not raise the deficit. If they break their word and vote for this bill, they’re betraying their constituents,” Club for Growth President David McIntosh said in a statement, for instance.
In another twist, the bill’s supporters must also overcome a wrangle over a provision that would expand a state and local tax deduction that critics — including one of the bill’s authors, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — have said is wrong and bad politics. Lifting the cap on state and local tax deductions has been a priority for members from high-tax states like New York and New Jersey, but progressives say that the plan is a giveaway to the rich. In an unusual reversal of normal political practice, some conservative Republicans are making the same argument, despite their own 2017 tax bill, which capped the deductions and gave the wealthy and corporations tax cuts.