Democratic factions dig in, threatening fate of infrastructure vote

The warring factions of the Democratic Party are digging in on their competing positions surrounding President Biden’s domestic agenda, raising the prospect that a bipartisan infrastructure bill will fail if it hits the House floor on Thursday.

The internal stalemate is raising new questions about whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will punt again on a vote that was originally scheduled for Monday.

Pelosi huddled in her Capitol office Thursday afternoon with three of the caucus’s major blocs: the Blue Dogs, the Progressive Caucus and the New Democrats. Each faction emerged asserting their previously held demands — the same entrenched dynamics that created the infrastructure impasse.

Moderate Democrats are still insisting on immediate passage of the $1.2 trillion Senate-passed infrastructure bill, arguing the need for a bipartisan victory on a major piece of Biden’s wishlist.

“We get credit for pucks in the net, not shots on goal,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), former chairman of the New Democrats. “The American people need the puck to get into the net.”

But progressives are also sticking with their position, demanding that a pair of Senate centrists — Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — commit to supporting a larger social benefits package before House liberals vote to send the infrastructure bill to Biden’s desk.

“We’re in the same place,” said Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). “We will not be able to vote for the infrastructure bill until the reconciliation bill has passed” through both chambers.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a member of the Blue Dogs, acknowledged that time restraints make it impossible for the sides to reach a deal and stage votes on the larger “family” benefits plan by the day’s end. But he said it is possible that negotiators can reach an agreement on a framework and a top-line spending number, predicting that would be enough to win over the liberals on infrastructure.

“They want to have a framework, and I think the focus will be more on how do we get people comfortable that if we vote on this bill today, the infrastructure, that we’re going to move forward on the other” package, Cuellar said.

Cuellar predicted Thursday’s infrastructure vote would proceed as planned. And a second moderate Democrat, speaking anonymously to discuss private conversations, said Pelosi had promised the group that the vote will happen on schedule.

“It’s not going to be pulled, I’m telling you,” Cuellar said.

The meetings came shortly after Manchin met with reporters at the Capitol to argue for a much smaller social benefits package, citing his concern for federal deficits and the potential inflationary effect of such a massive spending bill. He’s suggesting a package of $1.5 trillion — a far cry from the $3.5 trillion favored by Biden and most congressional Democrats. 

“Our number is $3.5 [trillion]. If somebody has a different offer then they can put it on the table. You don’t negotiate against yourself,” Jayapal told a gaggle of reporters. “If you go to buy a house, you don’t put down an offer and then before an offer has even been put down on the table suddenly say, ‘OK, I’m willing to go down another $100,000.’

“Anybody done that? I don’t think so. That’s not how we negotiate.”

Outside the Capitol there was a more festive mood Thursday. A mariachi band and a New Orleans-style brass band played music while progressive activists danced the Electric Slide. But their message was sobering: It’s time for Congress to act boldly and enact $3.5 trillion.

“Stop Blah, Blah, Blah. Pass Build Back Better,” read one sign.

“We are trying to protect and surround and empower the most vulnerable in our country,” progressive first-term Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) told dozens of activists. “And that is why I ran for office, that is why I was elected, to be here to fight for justice, for those who are historically neglected and most marginalized and that is what the hell I am going to do!” 

Some Democrats leaving Pelosi’s office said they were preparing to work through the weekend if no deal is reached and the Thursday infrastructure vote is delayed for a second time this week.

The House was supposed to depart Washington on Friday for a two-week recess, but it also now looks likely Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) will need to keep members in D.C. as Democrats try to break the impasse.

Vice President Harris, who served in the Senate with Manchin and Sinema, was dispatched to Capitol Hill on Thursday to help get the legislative gears turning.

“We’re happy to stay here every day until we get this done,” Jayapal said. “We don’t need to go home. We’ll work 24 hours a week, eat pizza every night. … We’ll do what it takes.”

Speaking to a throng of reporters in the shadow of the Capitol, Manchin declared he’s “never been a liberal in any way, shape, or form.” If progressives want to go bigger than $1.5 trillion, he said, they should “elect more liberals.”

Those remarks did not sit well with progressives.

“This is not a progressive agenda. We are fighting for the Build Back Better agenda, which is the president’s agenda,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a member of the “squad” of progressive lawmakers of color. 

“So if the senator thinks electing more Democrats is how you get it done, then that is something he should stay to the president because this is the president’s agenda,” she added.

Tags Democrats Derek Kilmer Ilhan Omar Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema moderates Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal progressives Reconciliation spending bill Steny Hoyer

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