Liberals dig in against infrastructure bill as party divisions persist

Written By: Emily Cochrane © 2021 The New York Times Company The New York Times
Washington Published: Sep 29, 2021, 07:14 PM(IST)

File photo: Capitol Hill. Photograph:( Others )

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The day after Pelosi signaled she would follow through with a Thursday vote on the infrastructure plan, the backlash reflected deep mistrust in the Democratic ranks that is threatening to derail President Joe Biden’s domestic policy agenda

Liberal Democrats dug in on Tuesday against voting for a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill this week, angrily rejecting a decision by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to push the bill forward before the party could resolve bitter disagreements over a sprawling social policy and climate package.

The day after Pelosi signaled she would follow through with a Thursday vote on the infrastructure plan, the backlash reflected deep mistrust in the Democratic ranks that is threatening to derail President Joe Biden’s domestic policy agenda.

At the heart of the impasse was a lack of clarity from moderate and conservative Democrats about what they would accept in the broader social safety net package, which has hamstrung negotiations led by Biden and Democratic congressional leaders to unify the party around a plan that can pass both chambers. Without a compromise, progressives say they cannot support the smaller, Senate-passed infrastructure plan, which omits many of their top priorities.

“Let me be clear: bringing the so-called bipartisan infrastructure plan to a vote without the #BuildBackBetter Act at the same time is a betrayal,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., said on Twitter on Tuesday. “We will hold the line and vote it down.”

Pelosi initially said the House would not take up the infrastructure plan until after the broader bill had passed. But in recent days, she has effectively decoupled the two bills, saying the party needed more time to resolve its differences over the proposed $3.5 trillion social policy plan, which conservative-leaning Democrats have called too costly.

“There was an intervention, as you know, in the past week or 10 days, of saying, ‘Well, we can’t go there,’” Pelosi said after a morning meeting with her caucus. “We’ll see what that is, and hopefully it will measure, it will reach the level that we need in order to pass both bills.”

“We will pass both bills,” she concluded.

Biden has been negotiating privately with some of the prime holdouts and met at the White House on Tuesday with two of them, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia. In the evening, the president canceled a Wednesday trip to Chicago, which was intended to promote COVID-19 vaccinations, so he could remain focused on brokering an agreement on his economic agenda.

Democrats are pushing through the social safety net package using the fast-track reconciliation process to shield it from a filibuster. But with slim margins of control in both chambers and Republicans unified in opposition, Democratic leaders must keep all their senators united in favor, and they can afford to lose as few as three votes in the House.

Senior White House officials worked feverishly on Tuesday to unite Democrats around both the infrastructure bill and the reconciliation plan, meeting with key lawmakers and staff members in an attempt to forge a compromise between moderates and progressives. Biden held a series of meetings at the White House, as well as calls with progressives, an administration official said.

A White House adviser said Biden and his team were working through the often competing positions that Democrats in various factions have staked out. On Capitol Hill, moderate Democrats remained confident that enough Republicans would support the infrastructure bill to allow it to clear the House, sending the legislation to Biden’s desk.

But liberals held firm, and received some high-profile encouragement from across the Capitol. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who leads the Senate Budget Committee, issued a fiery statement encouraging liberals to remain united in their stance.

“If there was a framework that addressed the major issues that we are fighting for in reconciliation, if there was a serious top line — I believe of $3.5 trillion — and Manchin and Sinema were 100% in agreement they would support that as we work out the fine details, that’s one thing,” Sanders said in an interview. “We’re not there yet, and it is upsetting to me that, as I understand it, they go to the White House and still nothing is happening. So I think it’s premature at this point to be passing the infrastructure bill.”

Lawmakers in both chambers have said they hope to quickly iron out the remaining differences between the moderate and liberal factions of their party, although many of the specific demands from the holdouts remain unclear. Pelosi has privately reiterated that she would not take up a reconciliation bill that could not pass the Senate.

But she told Democrats that she wanted to leave time for continued negotiations on it and as of Tuesday afternoon, it did not appear that a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure legislation would be delayed. That bill includes $550 billion in new funds over 10 years and maintains a series of key transportation programs set to lapse with the end of the fiscal year on Thursday.

“Man, holding one hostage over the other is not fair — it’s not right, it’s not good for the country,” Manchin said after his afternoon meeting at the White House, when pressed on his position and the vote conundrum in the House.

“You have to have trust a little bit, you know. Everybody’s not going to get what they want,” he added. “But let’s find out what the country needs.”

Both Manchin and Sinema have become a main target of liberal ire, having refused to publicly commit to an overall price tag after openly opposing a final $3.5 trillion package. Moderates in the House have also raised a wide variety of reservations about the scope of the legislation, leaving Democratic leaders with a complex web of issues that have frustrated efforts to reach a deal.

Sinema, for example, has privately expressed concern about current proposals for tax increases on wealthy people and corporations, while Manchin and others have floated the possibility of trimming back some of the spending.

“I think we just need them to say what’s the top line over there, which there’s always been a bit of reticence about saying,” said Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Without assurances from Senate moderates that they would embrace key components of the reconciliation legislation, progressives said they would not be comfortable backing the infrastructure measure.

“I think we’re in a situation where there’s a lot of needless hostage-taking — we can support everyone’s agenda here,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. “The idea that we must split them apart or have them on different dates is an artificial construct in order to take people’s child care away.”

“Realigning these two votes will bring our party together,” she told reporters.

Even as they worked to keep both pieces of Biden’s agenda on track, Democratic leaders were confronting two more urgent fiscal deadlines: the lapse of government funding at midnight on Thursday and the breach of the federal debt ceiling, which would cause a default. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen informed lawmakers on Tuesday that the deadline to avoid a default could come as early as Oct. 18, narrowing the window of time for Congress to act.

Senate Republicans on Monday blocked an emergency spending bill that would have lifted the statutory limit on federal borrowing, forcing Democratic leaders to consider a new strategy for averting a fiscal crisis. On Tuesday, they blocked another procedural attempt by Senate Democrats to avoid a filibuster and raise the debt ceiling.

Republicans have demanded that Democrats use the reconciliation process to raise the debt ceiling. But the maneuver would be complex and time-consuming, and House Democrats were considering taking up a separate bill raising the debt limit as early as Wednesday to continue pressuring the GOP on the issue.

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