Pelosi rebuffs McConnell on infrastructure

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) addresses reporters during her weekly press conference on June 24
Greg Nash

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday amplified her plans to link a bipartisan infrastructure agreement to a second package of Democratic economic priorities, rebuffing an appeal from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to decouple the two bills.

In a closed-door meeting with her caucus in the Capitol, Pelosi said her initial strategy — to withhold a House infrastructure vote until the Senate passes a larger, partisan families plan — remains unchanged, according to lawmakers in attendance.

“What the Speaker has said, and I totally agree with her, is that we’re not going to vote on one until the Senate sends us both,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, told reporters after the meeting. “That’s not changed.”

The remarks came several days after President Biden had shaken the infrastructure debate — first by vowing to veto the emerging bipartisan bill if it’s not accompanied by the Democrats’ larger social benefits package; and then by backing off of that threat after an outcry from moderate GOP senators.

McConnell seized on Biden’s reversal, urging Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to follow the president’s lead and commit to supporting the bipartisan infrastructure bill as a stand-alone measure.

“The President cannot let congressional Democrats hold a bipartisan bill hostage over a separate and partisan process,” McConnell said in a statement.

Pelosi, however, is standing her ground, supporting the liberals in her caucus who are wary that enacting the smaller infrastructure bill — which the Senate is shooting to pass before the August recess — would erode the momentum behind the larger partisan package, which Democrats intend to pass by reconciliation.

The liberals are demanding that the Senate pass the second measure before the House votes on either, and leadership appears to be well on board.

“The Speaker and Sen. Schumer have already indicated the strategy, that they would both move in tandem of each other,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said after Tuesday’s caucus meeting.

Democrats of all stripes appear united behind the two-track strategy. But Biden’s bungled rollout last week has angered some lawmakers, who view infrastructure as their last best chance for a major bipartisan accomplishment heading into next year’s challenging midterm elections.

“It was a fucking clown show,” said one Democratic lawmaker, who spoke anonymously to criticize a White House ally.

As part of the cleanup effort, Cedric Richmond, a top White House aide, made the rounds on the Sunday news shows to emphasize that, while Biden supports both bills, he’ll leave it to Democratic leaders in Congress to decide how to get them to his desk.

“The president is focused on the historic nature of the deal and actually getting it passed,” Richmond said in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “And the legislative process will be left up to Speaker Pelosi and Senator Schumer.”

Still, if Biden’s walk-back appeared to put him at strategic odds with Pelosi, it was largely because the two are addressing very different audiences.

The president had won the White House on promises to reach across the aisle, and in softening his position he was speaking to Republican moderates who’d been spooked by his initial veto threat.

“That statement understandably upset some Republicans, who do not see the two plans as linked,” Biden said Saturday.

Pelosi, on the other hand, is speaking on behalf of liberal Democrats, who have wide eyes to expand social benefits and tackle climate change — and see the reconciliation package as their best opportunity to do both.

“These are things that people have been agitating about around the edges, but you’ve not seen something with this sweep that meets the scope of needs that we’ve been talking about for as long as I’ve been in Congress,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), whose tenure on Capitol Hill spans almost three decades. “So go for it.”

Yet not all Democrats are crazy about the notion of sitting on a Senate infrastructure bill while waiting for a reconciliation package to reach the House.

Some moderates are wary that a delay would open Democrats to GOP attacks that they’re obstructing a major bipartisan accomplishment. And even some liberals, voicing an open distrust in McConnell and Senate procedures, want the House to move quickly on infrastructure — as soon as it gets the chance.

“I’ve never thought it wise to wait for the Senate,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.). “I think we did that back in 2009-10 with the Affordable Care Act. And what did that get us?”

As the debate evolves, the White House is tasking top officials to huddle with Democrats over the path forward. On Tuesday, Steve Ricchetti, a senior Biden adviser, spoke with members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. And Yarmuth said additional meetings are planned with moderate Democrats later in the week.

“I haven’t heard any widespread disagreement, or disenchantment,” Yarmuth said. “But it’s not easy.”

With the House slated to leave Washington at the end of July for a long, seven-week recess, House consideration of any Senate infrastructure bill won’t happen before lawmakers return to Capitol Hill in late September. But Democrats intend to carry the negotiations through the break, and are predicting they’ll move quickly when they return.

“We intend to do both bills,” said Rep. Richie Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. “And we’re going to do them in a pretty rapid manner.”

Scott Wong contributed.

Tags Barbara Lee budget reconciliation Cedric Richmond Charles Schumer Earl Blumenauer Filibuster Infrastructure Joe Biden John Garamendi John Yarmuth Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Steve Ricchetti
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