WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats raced in the final hours before key votes on Thursday to salvage a signature economic initiative and stave off a government shutdown, hoping to quell a rebellion among their own party while mollifying last-minute Republican concerns about a separate spending bill.
The sheer magnitude of the legislative activity on Capitol Hill offered a fresh test for Biden’s leadership — along with Democrats’ slight yet significant majorities in Congress — as they tried to manage the dual tasks of advancing their ambitious policy priorities and the basic job of keeping government open for business.
Urgently, Democrats face a Thursday deadline to adopt a measure to fund key federal agencies, and programs are set to shutter by Friday morning. House and Senate leaders believe they are on track to meet the goal despite a series of initial obstacles raised by Republicans throughout the week.
More uncertain, however, is the political fate of an approximately $1 trillion plan to improve the nation’s infrastructure. House Democrats had hoped to hold a vote Thursday to adopt the package and send it to the president’s desk, though it increasingly remains at risk of faltering as a result of the party’s fast-widening internal divisions.
Democrats generally support the infrastructure bill, which includes major new investments in the country’s aging roads, bridges, pipes, ports and internet connections. But the proposal has become a critical political bargaining chip for liberal-leaning lawmakers, who have threatened to scuttle it to preserve the breadth of a second, approximately $3.5 trillion economic package — one that moderates, including Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., want to scale back.
By Wednesday evening, however, the party’s dayslong standoff only appeared to be worsening. Sinema spent another day huddling with Biden’s top aides, hoping to strike an agreement around a bill smaller than $3.5 trillion, yet a final number still had yet to materialize. Manchin, meanwhile, doubled down with a fiery statement in which he starkly opposed trillions of dollars in spending. And he cast doubt on the possibility that any such deal even could come together in time for the House’s scheduled Thursday vote on infrastructure.
“No, it’s not possible,” he told reporters.
Absent a deal, the political dynamic threatened to leave House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., facing a difficult choice in the hours ahead — putting the infrastructure bill on the floor at the risk of a rare defeat, or pulling it back in a move that could upset moderates among her ranks. For now, though, she and other Democratic leaders signaled they would not waver, stressing they intend to stick with their original plan.
“We’ll see,” Pelosi told reporters. “The plan is to bring the bill to the floor. … One hour at a time.”
The tense and tentative mood on the Capitol only served to illustrate the high stakes for Democrats, who campaigned in 2020 on the promise of big, bold investments — and now face pressure to deliver them with the midterm elections about a year away. Pelosi has warned about the consequences of failure in private meetings with her own caucus this week, reflecting the extent to which the party’s narrow but powerful House and Senate majorities are on the line.
Among their immediate headaches, Democrats must address looming fiscal deadlines — including the expiration of federal funding come midnight Thursday. Congress is on pace to adopt the spending in a stopgap measure that funds federal operations into early December, a move that would prevent a shutdown in the middle of a pandemic. The scheduled Thursday vote comes as Senate leaders neared a deal that would allow Republicans to offer a series of amendments, including one limiting aid to Afghan refugees.
“With so many critical issues to address, the last thing the American people need right now is a government shutdown,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday.
Democrats are still grasping for a way to meet their second fiscal deadline, raising the debt ceiling by mid-October, after Republicans blocked their earlier efforts. A failure to do so could precipitate a global financial crisis, the White House has warned, potentially plunging the United States into a recession. The House adopted a measure to raise the debt ceiling late Wednesday, though the path forward in the Senate remains unclear.
In the meantime, Democrats have forged ahead with Biden’s agenda. That includes an approximately $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which the House began debating this week, after an agreement between Pelosi and a small group of centrist Democrats led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J.
Speaking to reporters late Tuesday, Gottheimer praised Pelosi and her prowess at whipping votes, expressing a measure of confidence that the infrastructure package can pass even in the face of sustained threats from liberal lawmakers. A day later, on the eve of that vote, he boldly predicted at an event hosted by Politico: “We’ll be drinking a nice glass of Champagne over here.”
But the fate of that infrastructure vote appeared imperiled as lawmakers departed the Capitol late Wednesday, even after Biden had labored to play the role of political emissary — engaging Sinema and Manchin directly in meetings and talks. Biden focused his efforts on securing the moderates’ support for a second, approximately $3.5 trillion package, which aims to expand Medicare, invest new sums to combat climate change and raise taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations. Without that robust spending, liberals have threatened to vote against new public-works investments.
For the second time in two days, however, Sinema and Manchin on Wednesday offered no indication as to the overall price tag they would support. Amid the lingering uncertainty, White House press secretary Jen Psaki described the discussions at one point during her daily press briefing as “precarious” — prompting reporters to press her on exactly what she meant.
“You’ve all asked me some very good and excellent questions about what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Psaki said, noting at one point Wednesday that she does believe Sinema seeks a deal. “And I can’t give you a concrete prediction of that.”
With tensions running high, Manchin then sounded a warning shot: In a lengthy statement, he called for continued negotiations around the package. He expressed optimism about a future agreement, but he also drew a line in the sand, stressing he “cannot — and will not — support trillions in spending or an all or nothing approach that ignores the brutal fiscal reality our nation faces.”
Manchin’s comments only further flummoxed liberals on Capitol Hill. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, wagered that there were probably “even more people willing to vote no” on infrastructure than first anticipated, as her allies scramble to preserve as much as they can in their prized $3.5 trillion package. Jayapal previously said as many as half in her roughly 100-member bloc would vote against the public-works measure in the absence of a clear deal with Senate moderates about the way forward.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., on Wednesday similarly fretted that there’s still “no clarity in what [moderates] actually want,” joining a chorus of members in the Congressional Progressive Caucus who have pilloried Manchin and Sinema in recent days. And Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., speaking earlier in the day, said she probably would have “no choice” but to oppose infrastructure as a result.
“There is just no way I can tell the people who need these services, who need these resources, that you know what, we are going to continue to throw you crumbs, because this is what happens,” Bush said.
Their opposition ultimately threatened to sink the public-works bill in a chamber where Pelosi can only afford to lose three votes, raising the specter of a high-stakes embarrassment for both the speaker and Biden on Thursday. Earlier, though, Pelosi raised the possibility that she still could change course, citing at one point the powers she has potentially to delay a vote.
“Anything that strengthens the hand of the speaker helps pass the bill,” she told reporters earlier in the day.
In a sign of the political vise she faces, however, Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., the leader of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, said it would be a “breach of trust” if Pelosi reversed course on infrastructure.
Should that happen, Murphy added, it could “slow the momentum in moving forward and delivering the Biden agenda.”
The Washington Post’s Annie Linskey contributed to this report.