Biden, Pelosi on collision course
President Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are on a collision course, at least at the moment, as they race to realize their sweeping infrastructure agenda heading into next year’s midterm elections.
The two Democratic heavyweights face identical pressures, as both are under enormous strain from their party’s liberal base to make sure a big social spending agenda isn’t undercut or even torpedoed by work on a bipartisan infrastructure bill.
But there are also subtly different motivations for Biden, a centrist who is not up for reelection until 2024 and vowed to break Washington’s fever by working with Republicans, and Pelosi, the veteran liberal leader with a narrow House majority dominated by progressive voices. She and her caucus are facing headwinds in next year’s midterms, historically a losing proposition for a House majority in the president’s party.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said that he would “never underestimate Nancy Pelosi’s ability to get things done” but acknowledged that Democrats are going to have to manage a “balancing act” between their competing crosscurrents.
“This isn’t our first rodeo … we’ve never seen any of these go from point A to point B to point C without hiccups, bumps. There will be more twists and turns,” Warner, a member of the Senate’s bipartisan group, said during an interview with MSNBC on Monday.
Biden, after appearing to hitch a nascent bipartisan infrastructure deal to the broader package of Democratic priorities, walked back that linkage on Saturday, saying he won’t withhold his signature on the first while awaiting Senate action on the second.
Pelosi, on the other hand, has made plain her intention to delay House consideration of a bipartisan infrastructure bill until the Senate has passed the second package — a grab bag of health, social and climate programs — by a process known as reconciliation, which nullifies the Republicans’ filibuster powers.
Democratic leaders are downplaying any discord between the branches, noting that Democrats of all stripes are supporting the two-prong infrastructure approach. Pelosi’s strategy, assuming she sticks to it, could leave the bipartisan deal in limbo for months, since the House is not expected to consider a Senate bill before the long August recess.
House Democrats have not ruled out the possibility that they’ll move to conference the Senate proposal with their own infrastructure wish-list, parts of which are poised to pass the House this week. That would provide party leaders some time to work on a reconciliation bill and perhaps get all sides — the House, Senate and White House — back in sync by the time Congress returns to Washington in September.
Still, given the delicacy of the Senate negotiations, changes made in the House risk dashing the Democrats’ hopes of enacting any major infrastructure reforms at all. And GOP leaders are going out of their way to draw attention to the differing messages coming from Democrats in the White House and Congress.
“The president cannot let congressional Democrats hold a bipartisan bill hostage over a separate and partisan process,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday.
The contrasting strategies would appear to put Biden and Pelosi at odds and highlight the quagmire facing Democrats as they clamber to keep the party united behind their infrastructure strategy after a wild week of promises, threats, ultimatums and missteps that threatened to derail the massive, two-pronged spending plan at the heart of Biden’s economic agenda.
McConnell — seeking to drive a wedge between Biden, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) — warned that the president’s walk-back on Saturday of his previous comments would be a “hollow gesture” unless Pelosi and Schumer similarly delinked the two infrastructure bills.
“I appreciate the president saying that he’s willing to deal with infrastructure separately but he doesn’t control the Congress. And the Speaker and the majority leader of the Senate will determine the order,” McConnell told reporters in Kentucky.
Pelosi, however, has shown no signs of backing down.
“Let me be really clear on this: We will not take up a bill in the House until the Senate passes the bipartisan bill and a reconciliation bill,” she said last week.
Biden appears unlikely to try to publicly pressure Pelosi’s strategy on timing. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that Biden will be in “close coordination” with the two Democratic leaders but would leave floor sequencing up to them.
The president angered Republicans when, just hours after announcing the emerging infrastructure deal on Thursday, he vowed not to sign the bill without assurances the reconciliation bill would follow.
On Saturday, the president reversed course, saying his initial remarks were misinterpreted.
“My comments … created the impression that I was issuing a veto threat on the very plan I had just agreed to, which was certainly not my intent,” he said.
Biden’s walk-back won over the core group of GOP negotiators, including Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah) and Rob Portman (Ohio), who blitzed the Sunday shows to talk up their support.
But the flip-flop is sure to infuriate liberals, who are warning that they’ll oppose the infrastructure bill without concrete assurances that the partisan reconciliation package has a clear shot to Biden’s desk. Some are warning that the fragile Democratic majorities could be on the line if base voters deem their efforts insufficiently bold.
“What we have been clear about is we will go along with a decent bipartisan package — but not unless the reconciliation package is through,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We are extremely vulnerable to being played by Republicans into a similar situation where they’re not going to pass anything and we’re waiting for them to get on board, and in the process we don’t deliver and we lose our majorities for a long time.”
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also appeared to send a veiled jab toward Biden and his centrist colleagues.
“Let me be clear: There will not be a bipartisan infrastructure deal without a reconciliation bill that substantially improves the lives of working families and combats the existential threat of climate change. No reconciliation bill, no deal,” he tweeted.
Pelosi is no stranger to navigating the ideological differences in her party, with razor-thin majorities in both chambers enabling every lawmaker to make demands.
Schumer, meanwhile, hasn’t put a hard timeline on when the Senate will vote on the second infrastructure package.
Instead, Senate Democrats plan to vote in July on both the bipartisan plan and a budget resolution that includes the instructions for a separate Democratic-only infrastructure bill. But then they will leave town until mid-September, returning to an immediate government funding fight that will dominate their schedule until October.
Some Democrats are already questioning why they should hold up the Senate’s bipartisan deal, particularly if they at least take the first step toward passing the sweeping infrastructure bill. Those calls are only likely to grow if the Senate is able to pass the bipartisan plan next month.
“I would hope that we trust each other a little more than that,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the group that negotiated the deal with the White House and Republicans.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), speaking at a press conference in New York on Monday, urged Congress to quickly move the bipartisan plan.
“We’ve got a bipartisan deal in Washington,” Gottheimer said. “We can’t let the bipartisan deal get derailed. We’ve got to get it done and get it done now.”
This article was updated at 9:50 p.m.