Progressives see infrastructure vote next week
House liberals are playing the long game.
The progressives who bucked their president to block an infrastructure vote this week also lowered the bar for moving an even larger social benefits package at the heart of Joe Biden’s domestic policy agenda.
It’s a two-step dance that’s rankled party leaders in the near-term, but simultaneously paved the way for quicker action on both proposals — perhaps as early as next week.
“I don’t think it’ll take that long,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said as lawmakers headed home this week without a deal.
The timeline will hinge on the resolution of a series of outstanding issues still under negotiation within the “family” benefits package, as well as the drafting of the legislative language reflecting those lingering decisions. But with much of the text already released — and with the Progressive Caucus already endorsing that legislative framework — the liberals say both bills could be on the floor in a matter of days.
“We have the text; that’s what we needed,” said Jayapal.
“I am renewedly optimistic,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), a fellow progressive who leads the Joint Economic Committee, which makes recommendations on how to improve the U.S. economy. Beyer told The Hill on Friday that he expects the House to vote on one package, likely the infrastructure bill, on Tuesday, then take up the $1.75 trillion social and climate spending package later in the week.
“I feel really good about next week,” added a third House progressive, who like Jayapal, had been holding the line in opposing the infrastructure bill.
The burst of optimism follows shortly on the heels of an embarrassing setback for Biden and Democratic leaders, who were racing to stage a Thursday vote on a popular $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which was passed by the Senate in August.
Biden had visited the Capitol on Thursday morning to rally House Democrats behind both parts of his two-prong economic agenda, touting a newly released “framework” governing the $1.75 trillion social spending piece. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) urged lawmakers to support the infrastructure bill in a vote she’d hoped to bring later in the day.
Jayapal had led the successful opposition to that plan, speaking for a host of liberals who want deeper assurances that the larger “family” benefits bill not only passes their muster, in terms of policy specifics, but also has enough Senate support to reach Biden’s desk. Only then will they back the bipartisan infrastructure bill, known informally as the BIF.
“If we vote for the BIF, I think that that’s it. I think we lose the other bill,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.). “I don’t trust what the senators are going to do.”
At the same time, the progressives rolled back their policy demands and lowered the tactical threshold for winning their votes on infrastructure. While leading liberals had initially insisted that their votes would hinge on Senate passage of the larger benefits package, now some are saying that a spoken commitment from the Senate centrist holdouts — Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — would be enough to win their backing.
“I trust Biden,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.). “But the other two senators haven’t said they’d vote for it.”
Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), a deputy whip of the Progressive Caucus who had vocally opposed an infrastructure vote publicly and privately in meetings, agreed with Vargas. She said she had been prepared to change her mind and vote “yes” on infrastructure Thursday if she had received stronger assurances from Manchin and Sinema that they are on board with the framework.
“We need a commitment on the framework,” Escobar told The Hill. “If I had heard or received word of a firm commitment directly from the two senators who’ve been at the center of these negotiations, sending out a statement saying I support it, it would have been a different ballgame.”
Biden “has full support from the Progressive Caucus for his framework; we voted to [endorse] the framework,” she added. “You don’t see us wrangling about the framework; you only see us [debating] the strategy for getting it done.”
For others, the threshold is even lower. Jayapal said she’d accept Biden’s word that the benefits package can win 50 votes in the Senate, even without a public statement of support from Manchin and Sinema.
“We’ll go along with the two bills in the House— passage — and we will back off of the original … request that we had for the Senate to pass it. We’re gonna trust the president on the Senate vote. And we’re going to trust our Senate colleagues — all of them, all 50 of them — on the Senate vote,” she said.
“But we do need the text and we do need the vote on both bills in the House at the same time.”
The liberals’ stonewalling tactics forced Biden to board a plane to Europe on Thursday without the big legislative win he’d hoped to notch. And they were hammered by many other Democrats, including a number of veteran lawmakers, who accused the progressives of misunderstanding the political importance of lending the unpopular president an immediate victory. Some of the critics chalked it up to simply inexperience.
“They’ve never been in the minority,” grumbled one veteran lawmaker as the House recessed Thursday night.
Yet the liberals say that their counterintuitive strategy — expedition by delay — will actually pay dividends for Biden and the Democrats in the long run, by ensuring that some of the party’s longest-held policy priorities make it into the final version of the social spending package. If they lost a battle on infrastructure on Thursday, they argue, it was only to win the larger war with centrists over what will make it into the larger benefits bill.
“There is too much at stake for working families and our communities to settle for something that can be later misunderstood, amended, or abandoned altogether,” said Jayapal.
As part of their vetting, the progressives are also in discussions with the White House to clarify the specifics of certain parts of Biden’s framework, particularly on the issue of climate. That includes detailed information surrounding carbon emissions modeling — “just to make sure the carbon emissions reductions are real,” Jayapal said.
Progressive lawmakers said they didn’t begin learning details of what was in or out of the Build Back Better package until they deployed hardball tactics and blocked the infrastructure package. With that knowledge, they could devise a better game plan to fight for specific policies that were dealbreakers for the left.
When progressives demanded legislative text this week, Pelosi and her leadership team on Thursday produced 1,684 pages of the Build Back Better bill.
“We now have text. We now know what’s in it. We have a dollar figure,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “We have pretty much an agreed framework for how to proceed.”
“I think the deal’s done,” added Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.). “We’re waiting to see the final language to make sure no one gets screwed.”