Progressives are once again threatening to tank their party’s infrastructure bill ahead of a key deadline, with President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda on the line. This time Democratic leaders believe they have a secret weapon: Biden himself.
Biden will join House Democrats on Capitol Hill Thursday morning for a high-stakes sales pitch to resistant progressives, asking them to support a bipartisan infrastructure framework, although a final agreement on the party’s broader social spending bill remains out of reach without clear liberal buyin.
But even as Biden sandwiched the Hill visit and follow-up White House remarks into an already-packed schedule that includes departing for a major foreign trip, some liberals were digging in. They’re insisting his bully pulpit wouldn’t be enough to get their votes right away.
Biden “can leave with an agreement of where we need to be and we can vote on the full bill next week,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
The Biden huddle is a little bit of déjà vu. In many ways Democrats are reliving the nightmarish week in late September when liberal objections forced House leadership to scuttle a vote on the Senate-passed infrastructure bill, enraging the party’s centrists. Biden yielded to progressives’ demands during a visit to the Hill four weeks ago, rather than leaning on his left flank to support the bipartisan bill.
Democrats are hoping Biden arrives in the Capitol Thursday morning with a much more urgent message for liberals, who are once again vowing to block that infrastructure bill if it doesn’t move in tandem with his broader social spending plan.
Top Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, had hoped the president’s trip would be a triumphant one after they clinched an agreement on the roughly $1.75 trillion social spending bill with moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). But that deal remained elusive Thursday morning as progressives balked at the prospect of cutting many of their priorities from the final negotiations.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) returned from a meeting with Biden Wednesday evening saying it was “inconceivable” he would agree to a package that was missing critical progressive goals – from Medicare expansion to prescription drug reform to paid leave – all because two centrist holdouts object.
“The minority should not be dictating to the majority,” Sanders told reporters.
One Democratic source close to progressive lawmakers said Thursday morning that they had concerns that Sinema and Manchin still have not yet committed to voting for the bill. This source added that Sanders has told House progressives he supported their position to hold off on advancing the infrastructure bill unless it and the social spending bill at the same time through their chamber.
“This is exactly why we need legislative text and all parties fully agreed to that bill text,” the source said, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity.
Still, Democratic leaders including Biden, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are hoping they can secure a deal this week, paving the way for progressives to support the $550 billion infrastructure bill that cleared the Senate nearly three months ago.
Sanders’ backing will be key to unlocking progressive votes in the House, where Pelosi can only lose three Democrats on any piece of legislation. Senior Democrats hope if the upper chamber’s liberal leader signs onto the plan, his House allies will feel comfortable enough to relent on the infrastructure bill.
“I think it’s going to be necessary for the president to look them in the eye,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said of his members, and say: “‘I believe, having talked to Manchin and having talked to Sinema, if this framework is passed, they will pass [the social spending bill] in the Senate.”
But even with a strong push from Biden, it will take some wrangling.
Leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus insist that roughly 30 of their members need to see an ironclad commitment that both Manchin and Sinema will vote for the party-line spending plan, along with legislative text at a minimum. A group of roughly 10 to 15 Democrats also say they’ll be satisfied with nothing less than a full House vote on the broader social policy bill, according to multiple sources close to the discussions.
“Right now, there are over three dozen members who feel strongly” about securing more than a framework, said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who leads the progressive caucus. “And that number is only increasing.”
Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), another one of progressives’ vote-counters, added that “nothing’s changed for dozens of progressives.”
Still, senior Democrats are skeptical that dozens of progressives would be willing to block one of Biden’s biggest priorities at a time when he badly needs a win. Anxiety has risen across the party as Biden’s priorities languish in Congress, particularly before a pair of global summits and two key gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey next week.
Even so, the liberal backlash could be a problem for House Democratic leaders as they try to tee up an infrastructure vote this week. If the group of roughly 15 liberals does hold out, Democrats would need to make up those defections with GOP votes. But senior Democrats caution that those votes are less reliable, with some Republicans likely unwilling to vote in favor until Democrats can put up the numbers on their own.
Earlier this summer, House Republicans predicted that more than 20 of their members would easily vote for the infrastructure package, which won approval from 19 GOP senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Multiple House Republicans who support the bipartisan infrastructure bill estimate that they are now hovering around 10 GOP votes for the Senate-approved legislation.
Sources say Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), co-chairs of the Problem Solvers Caucus, are again working behind the scenes to get more Republican supporters for the infrastructure bill after initially pausing informal whip efforts while Democrats’ negotiations stalled.
Jayapal and her whip team have spent the last several days phoning their members to take their temperatures on the emerging deal. They’ve also made their position clear to the White House, informing staff that they are willing to publicly cheer a deal — even standing side-by-side with Manchin and Sinema, if needed — to lend Biden momentum as he jets off to Europe.
But Jayapal and her allies say at least 30 members of the group are refusing to advance infrastructure unless the broader spending deal moves in tow.
“The speaker knows how to count votes,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). “I don’t think she’s going to bring it for a vote until she knows she can win it, and she has Pramila and a few others clearly on board.”
And they’re getting support from liberal allies in the Senate.
“A framework is part of getting to a final bill, but I’m not OK with the infrastructure bill being passed out of the House until we actually have a bill in the Senate,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).
Burgess Everett and Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.