Showdown: Pelosi dares liberals to sink infrastructure bill

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Friday escalated the tense standoff over President Biden’s domestic agenda, daring liberals in her own caucus to oppose a bipartisan infrastructure bill that’s languished in the House for months while negotiators haggled over a larger social spending package.

Progressives, behind Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), have blocked the infrastructure proposal for fear that Senate centrists — Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — would reject the bigger “family” benefits bill if the more popular public works bill had already reached Biden’s desk.

In response, Pelosi has kept the infrastructure bill off the floor, even despite urging the liberals to reconsider their objections for the sake of giving the unpopular Biden a big legislative win. 

That is, until now.

On Friday, after hours of negotiations in which Pelosi failed to convince a handful of moderates to back the social benefits package, the Speaker abruptly announced that the infrastructure bill would come to the floor for a vote along with the rule governing the larger benefits package — but not that package itself.

The move was immediately hammered by liberals, and Jayapal quickly issued a statement demanding that the two bills move in tandem and suggesting she had enough lawmakers behind her to sink it.

“As we’ve consistently said, there are dozens of our members who want to vote both bills — the Build Back Better Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act — out of the House together,” Jayapal said.

Pelosi didn’t blink. Shortly afterwards, the Speaker staged a press conference, alongside her top lieutenants — Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.) — to say she’s sticking with the plan to bring the infrastructure proposal to the floor, while suggesting she’s already secured the support to pass it.

“I do believe there are a large number of members of the progressive caucus who will vote for the bill,” Pelosi said. “I have Speaker’s secret whip count.” 

The comments amount to the launch of a high-stakes game of chicken: Pelosi says she has the liberal votes to pass the infrastructure bill without the larger package; Jayapal says she has the liberal votes to block it.

The bill is scheduled to hit the floor Friday evening. And in a sign of how much is on the line, Biden called Jayapal Friday evening to make his case for Pelosi’s plan.

Some liberals are already saying they’re ready to back that plan, even if it’s not their preferred strategy. 

“If that’s the way it ends up, what am I going to do?” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a former head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “The risk of doing nothing, to me, is more profound than the sequence.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), another prominent progressive and close ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has urged against a stand-alone infrastructure  vote, also suggested an openness to vote for infrastructure.

“I’m open to giving the leadership a hearing,” he said. 

Pelosi’s surprising move marks a sharp departure for a Speaker who’s built a reputation around securing support before staging votes on the floor. She has said repeatedly throughout the debate over Biden’s agenda that she won’t consider any bills that can’t pass.

“I’ve never seen her bring something to the floor and dare people to oppose it. Have you?” asked one surprised Democratic aide. 

Moderates who have been pressing for months for the stand-alone infrastructure bill are cheering Pelosi’s decision to stage the vote on Friday — even if it fails.

“Let’s let ’em vote no; let’s see it,” said Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas). “If they want to vote ‘no’ against $1.2 billion in their own congressional district, well let ’em go do it.” 

Scott Wong contributed.  

Tags Bernie Sanders Filemon Vela Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal Ro Khanna Steny Hoyer

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