Progressives win again: No infrastructure vote Thursday

House Democratic leaders abandoned a third attempt on Thursday to clear a Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill, as progressives held firmly opposed without deeper assurances that a larger package of social benefits is a slam dunk.

The third punt in a month came after President Biden made a rare visit to the Capitol to beseech House Democrats to help him advance his agenda as a matter of demonstrating that American democracy can still function.

The visit was hailed by lawmakers of all stripes, but it did little to convince the liberals to vote immediately on the infrastructure bill. And the delay has sparked a new round of finger-pointing from lawmakers already frustrated with the months-long impasse and Biden’s sinking approval numbers.

“Not good optics. It’s terrible optics,” conceded Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), who wanted the House to pass the infrastructure bill on Thursday.

“People are frustrated right now,” added Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), a moderate Blue Dog. “There’s a lack of trust, and you got a lot of members here that have been here four years or less and they don’t seem to understand how you get things done.” 

One of the Blue Dog Coalition leaders, Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), later issued a statement, saying the group is “extremely frustrated that legislative obstruction of the [infrastructure bill] continues — not based on the bill’s merits, but because of a misguided strategy to use the bill as leverage on separate legislation.”

Some of the frustration was also directed toward the Senate centrist holdouts — Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — who have resisted large parts of Biden’s agenda and forced him to settle far below his initial request of $3.5 trillion in new spending. 

“Basically it’s the [dis]trust of Manchin and Sinema,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.). “That’s the problem.”

But there was also grumbling that Biden and his administration have bungled the negotiations from the start by focusing initially on the Senate and leaving House members feeling left out. 

“Even in the beginning of the summer, this was about the White House and the Senate, and the House was excluded,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). “This is, I think, the result of that omission.” 

Despite the delay, Democrats were optimistic that negotiators could reach a deal within days on the social benefits bill, paving the way for both proposals to hit the floor next week. 

Still, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her leadership team wanted to expedite that timeline by clearing the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Thursday to give Biden a big legislative victory as he left for Europe for a global climate change summit. Leadership also hoped to boost Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey, where voters go to the polls on Tuesday. 

Democrats are particularly anxious about the fate of Terry McAuliffe in Virginia, who was the favorite months ago but is now running neck and neck with Glenn Youngkin, the GOP candidate, in the final stretch.

A Fox News poll released Thursday found Youngkin leading by 8 points among likely voters. Among registered voters, the same poll showed the candidates 1 point apart, well within the survey’s 2.5 percentage point margin of error. 

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), a former Virginia lieutenant governor, said it was “frustrating” that House Democrats were repeatedly falling short of deadlines to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill. 

“It would have demonstrated a strong president and a unified Democratic Party,” Beyer said of the idea of the House clearing the bill before Tuesday’s gubernatorial race in his state.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill would also renew federal highway programs that are currently set to expire on Oct. 31. Faced with the impasse, Democratic leaders instead hastily scheduled a vote Thursday night on a short-term extension through Dec. 3, which lawmakers passed handily on a bipartisan basis. 

Lawmakers similarly had to enact a short-term patch for expiring highway programs last month when House Democratic leaders also had to postpone plans to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill due to progressive resistance. 

Pelosi originally made a commitment to a group of moderate Democrats in August that the House would take up the bipartisan bill by Sept. 27. The vote was pushed to Sept. 30, then to Oct. 1, and then delayed again as progressives held firm in their position. 

Thursday’s vote to renew the highway programs capped a long day for Democrats in Washington racing to advance Biden’s sweeping economic agenda. 

It began, in an unexpected move, when the White House unveiled a $1.75 trillion “framework” Thursday morning for the social spending package that includes funding for universal preschool, an expansion of Medicare to include hearing coverage, and a new surtax on multimillionaires. 

But progressives insisted that they at least needed legislative text to feel confident enough in backing the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

With House Democrats able to afford only three defections and still pass legislation on their own, progressives made clear that they could prevent the bipartisan bill from passing even if a handful of Republicans voted for it.

“This is the whole thing: We need to see what we’re doing because we didn’t want delays, and we wanted to make sure that we could go from a framework to legislation. And because of our clear position on that, we got legislation,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC).

Other progressives attempted to spin Thursday’s developments as a win for Biden and his party, even though the pair of bills remained stuck in limbo. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), a senior whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, argued that Biden’s Build Back Better framework won a critical endorsement from the roughly 100-member CPC and that progressives and moderates significantly narrowed their differences, agreeing which key policy provisions were in or out.  

“It is going to make a deep and lasting impact on families in economically disadvantaged communities like mine. And the amount between infrastructure and the framework for climate change — that amount combined is nearly $1 trillion,” Escobar, who represents El Paso, told The Hill. 

“I think the president should embrace this as a victory,” she said, “because what he got from the Progressive Caucus was an endorsement of the framework and a commitment that we will help him get those bills across the finish line with our votes.”

–Updated at 8:38 p.m.

Tags Alan Lowenthal Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez bipartisan infrastructure bill budget reconciliation package Build Back Better Jim Costa Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal progressives social spending bill Stephanie Murphy Steve Cohen Veronica Escobar

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