WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure plan suffered a significant setback late Thursday night when House Democratic leaders, short of support amid a liberal revolt, put off a planned vote on a crucial plank of their domestic agenda.
Democratic leaders and supporters of the bill insisted the postponement was only a temporary setback. The infrastructure vote was rescheduled for Friday, giving them more time to reach agreement on an expansive climate change and social safety net bill that would bring liberals along.
But such a deal appeared far off, and the delay was a humiliating blow to Biden and Democrats, who had spent days toiling to broker a deal between their party’s feuding factions and corral the votes needed to pass the infrastructure bill. Biden has staked his reputation as a deal-maker on the success of both the public works package and a far more ambitious social policy bill, whose fates are now uncertain in a Congress buffeted by partisan divides and internal Democratic strife.
Given the distance between the Democrats’ left flank and a few centrists on that larger bill, it was not clear when or even whether either would have the votes — and whether Biden’s economic agenda could be revived.
The House and Senate did pass — and Biden signed — legislation to fund the government until Dec. 3, with more than $28 billion in disaster relief and $6.3 billion to help relocate refugees from Afghanistan. That at least averted the immediate fiscal threat of a government shutdown, clearing away one item on the Democrats’ must-do list, at least for two months.
But that small accomplishment was overwhelmed by the acrimony on display within the president’s party.
The infrastructure measure, which would provide $550 billion in new funding, was supposed to burnish Biden’s bipartisan bona fides. It would devote $65 billion to expand high-speed internet access; $110 billion for roads, bridges and other projects; $25 billion for airports; and the most funding for Amtrak since the passenger rail service was founded in 1971. It would also begin the shift toward electric vehicles with new charging stations and fortifications of the electricity grid that will be necessary to power those cars.
But progressive leaders for weeks had said they would oppose it until they saw action on the legislation they really wanted — a far-reaching bill with paid family leave, universal prekindergarten, Medicare expansion and strong measures to combat climate change.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and top members of Biden’s team worked feverishly into the night at the Capitol to strike a deal that could allow for passage of the expansive public works measure, which the Senate approved in August with great fanfare. But amid cajoling, pleading and arm-twisting, the House’s most liberal members would not budge, while Republicans stayed largely in lock step behind their leaders’ efforts to kill the bill.
“Nobody should be surprised that we are where we are, because we’ve been telling you that for 3 1/2 months,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
The problem for Biden is that the liberals’ price for their infrastructure vote — Senate passage of the social policy measure — is beginning to drift out of reach.
Conservative-leaning Democrats made it even clearer Thursday that they could never support a package anywhere near as large as Biden had proposed. Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., told reporters that he wanted a bill that spent no more than $1.5 trillion, less than half the size of the package that Democrats envisioned in their budget blueprint.
“I’m trying to make sure they understand that I’m at 1.5 trillion,” Manchin told reporters late Thursday night, emerging from the office of Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, where he had been meeting with White House officials. “I don’t see a deal tonight — I really don’t.”
Shortly afterward, House leaders put out word that plans for the infrastructure vote, which Pelosi had insisted all day was still on track, would wait.
Manchin spoke out about his position after a memo detailing it was published in Politico on Thursday.
The document was instructive in ways well beyond the spending total. His bottom-line demands included means-testing any new social programs to keep them targeted at the poor; a major initiative on the treatment of opioid addictions that have ravaged his state; control of shaping a clean energy provision that, by definition, was aimed at coal, a mainstay of West Virginia; and assurances that nothing in the bill would eliminate the production and burning of fossil fuels — a demand sure to enrage advocates of combating climate change.
On provisions to pay for the package, he was more in line with other Democrats, backing several rollbacks of the Trump-era tax cut of 2017, including raising the corporate tax rate to 25%, up from 21%; setting a top individual income tax rate of 39.6%, up from 37%; and increasing the capital gains tax rate to 28%, another substantial boost.
But that tax agreement ran counter to the position of the other Democratic holdout, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who has told colleagues she opposes such significant tax rate increases.
Pelosi, 81, has nurtured her reputation as a master legislator and skilled deal-maker, but above all, she has been loath to call a vote on any bill unless she has been sure it would pass. In this case, she faced a dilemma. She had promised nine moderate and conservative Democrats that she would put the infrastructure bill to a vote before the end of September, and some of those nine said pulling the bill from consideration would badly undermine their trust in her.
But she also did not want to see it voted down. Ultimately, she decided it would be better for the president’s agenda for her to put off action.
The decision came after she put her reputation as a legislative powerhouse on the line, saying she had told top Democrats that the social policy and climate measure was “the culmination of my career in Congress.”
Susan Rice, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council, huddled into the night with Pelosi’s and Schumer’s aides, shuttling across the Capitol as they tried to hammer out a social policy framework that could satisfy the warring factions.
Now, to save both pieces of his economic agenda, Biden will most likely have to secure the bigger and harder one, the climate change and social policy bill.
Some Democrats saw Manchin’s memo as at least a starting point for negotiations that have foundered in the absence of a clear signal from him or Sinema about what they could accept.
Manchin said he had informed Biden of his top-line number in the last few days, about two months after he and Schumer both signed the memo acknowledging Manchin’s stance.
His comments Thursday were his most forthcoming about what he wanted to see in the social policy plan, which Democrats hope to push through using a fast-track process known as budget reconciliation that shields fiscal legislation from a filibuster. Democrats are trying to pass the package over united Republican opposition, meaning they cannot spare even one vote in the evenly divided Senate.
Schumer, who signed the agreement as he was working to persuade Manchin to support the party’s budget blueprint, appeared to have scrawled, “I will try to dissuade Joe on many of these” underneath his signature.
On Thursday, a spokesperson emphasized that Schumer did not consider it binding.
“As the document notes, leader Schumer never agreed to any of the conditions Sen. Manchin laid out; he merely acknowledged where Sen. Manchin was on the subject at the time,” said Justin Goodman, the spokesperson.
Also Thursday, Sinema’s office said she would not “negotiate through the press” but had made her priorities and concerns known to Biden and Schumer.
Caught in the middle is the infrastructure bill, negotiated by Republican and Democratic senators, pushed hard by the nation’s largest business groups and backed widely in polls by voters of both parties.
The question now is whether the postponed vote will so anger moderate supporters that they bring down the liberals’ priority. Some centrist Democrats who had pressed for quick passage of the measure were incensed at the delay.
“When Iowans tell me they are sick of Washington games, this is what they mean,” Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, said in a statement. “Instead of moving forward with one piece of the comprehensive agenda that we’ve been crafting over the past six months, some in my party are insisting that we wait to put shovels in the ground and pass the largest investment in rural broadband in U.S. history until every piece of our agenda is ready.”
She added, “All-at-once or nothing is no way to govern.”
But progressives who have pushed to slow the infrastructure bill down to leave room for a deal on the larger social policy measure said it was worth it to secure the best possible package.
“If there’s no vote today, or it’s defeated, the world will not collapse,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chair of the Budget Committee. “This is a hugely consequential bill. We have time. Let’s do it right.”