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Progressives Delay Infrastructure Vote, Make McCarthy Prediction Prophetic

October 29, 2021 by Dan McCue
The U.S. Capitol. Oct 28, 2021. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — “Does she have the votes?”

This is not an unusual question to be heard when one wanders about Capitol Hill, but on Thursday afternoon it was a question literally on everyone’s lips.

Case in point: This rendering was overheard as it was being exchanged by a couple — apparently, just regular citizens visiting as tourists — sitting in the shade of a tree on the Capitol grounds Thursday afternoon.

Moments earlier, news alerts had pounded cell phones, alerting all who received them that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was determined to hold a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package.

And that announcement came after a rush of activity Thursday morning, including a visit to the Capitol by President Joe Biden, who informed House Democrats that he’d negotiated a “historic economic framework” for his now $1.75 trillion budget reconciliation package that he believes can actually pass in the Senate.

“It will fundamentally change the lives of millions of people for the better,” Biden told Democratic caucus members according to a person who attended the closed door session and who requested anonymity to discuss the president’s remarks.

“I need your votes,” Biden said.

Pelosi called the framework outlined by the president “transformative,” “historic” and “a cause for celebration.”

She also told reporters the House Rules Committee was already at work on preparing the framework for a vote and that the text had already been posted online.

But she hedged a little when a reporter asked if a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill was imminent, noting only that the Highway Trust Fund — a must-pass piece of infrastructure legislation — was due to expire on Oct. 31.

“We made this the target date for us to get this done,” Pelosi said. “We need certainty.”

But House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Thursday he didn’t believe for a second that the speaker had the votes she needed to pass the infrastructure bill whose fate the progressives had tied to a solid deal on the reconciliation bill.

“I think they’re grasping at straws,” McCarthy said.

“The White House rushes out a ‘framework’ just hours before the president comes to the Hill, [but] we’re still missing two things: What exactly is going to be in the bill and how we’re going to pay for it? Other than that, we’re good to go.”

Though a long day and night would follow his remarks, he likened what he said was the foregone outcome to the old Charles Schultz Peanuts cartoons.

“What we’re waiting to see is Charlie Brown Biden whiffs as Lucy Pelosi once again pulls the football away from him as he tries to kick it through the goal post for a score,” McCarthy said.

Surprisingly early in the evening, that’s kind of what happened.

Urgency and Distrust

The forces fueling the urgency to get something done on Thursday were three-fold: One, as the Speaker said, the government funding for highway and transit programs had to be extended by Oct. 31.

Then there was the desire to give the president a major domestic policy win before he jetted to Europe Thursday afternoon to attend this weekend’s meeting of the Group of 20 industrial and emerging nations.

Finally, there were concerns about how a failure by the House to act would impact next week’s gubernatorial election in Virginia, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe currently holds a razor thin lead over Republican Glenn Youngkin.

Ultimately, all of that was too little to overcome the concerns of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which put out a statement via Twitter suggesting that while they overwhelmingly supported the framework laid out by the president, they could not support a vote on the infrastructure bill until the reconciliation bill can be voted on at the same time.

“This cannot be accomplished without a legislative text that can be fully assessed and agreed upon by all parties, including 218 Representatives and all 50 senators in the Democratic Caucus,” the statement said. “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. That is why dozens of our members insist on keeping both bills linked and cannot vote only for one until they can be voted on together.”

The subtext for this appears to be they remained unconvinced that Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., the two holdouts in the Senate Democratic Caucus, would ultimately vote in favor of the $1.75 trillion package of social and climate programs.

Manchin, a staunch opponent of the original $3.5 trillion reconciliation proposal offered by the White House, had come as far on Thursday as telling his Senate colleagues the new, slimmed down version of the package was something he could “work with,” but he did not come right out and say he’d support it in its current form.

Sinema released a statement on Thursday that said “After months of productive, good-faith negotiations with President Biden and the White House, we have made significant progress on the proposed budget reconciliation package. I look forward to getting this done, expanding economic opportunities and helping everyday families get ahead.”

But none of this moved the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“I told anybody that would listen that we did not have the votes for [an infrastructure] vote tonight,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the caucus chair, Thursday night.

Jayapal later told Politico that Biden had not explicitly asked for a vote on the infrastructure bill when he visited the Capitol on Thursday, and that, evidently, was taken as a sign that they should hold out until both bills were ready for a vote.

“The president said he wants us to pass both bills and that this coming week was going to be critical for that. We will deliver both these bills to him, from the House, next week,” she told Politico.

On To An Uncertain Future

With little progress made in negotiations during the dinner hour, the House Democratic leadership called a vote on a short term extension of the transportation and highway funding bill.

The proposal to extend the funding authorization to Dec. 3 passed 358-59. The Senate agreed by unanimous consent to deem the measure passed so long as the measure passed in the House is identical to the Senate version.

House moderates ended the night irate.

Frustrated by the delay in the vote, Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., one of the centrists who had gotten a commitment from party leaders that a vote on infrastructure would be held over a month ago, ripped the progressives on Thursday, calling them the “never-enough caucus.”

In an interview on CNN, she said she was disappointed that “a small sect of my colleagues have decided they are going to deny the American people this much-needed investment for their own political purposes.”

In a statement on her Twitter account she added, “Today, yet again, a small group of my Democratic colleagues blocked passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. These delays are undermining the president’s agenda and embarrassing the Democratic Party. More importantly, they’re hurting our country and our constituents.”

In a joint statement, the leadership of the Blue Dog Coalition of House Democrats also expressed their displeasure, saying in a statement that Biden had “called on Democrats to rally together, pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, and deliver results to the American people.” 

“Unfortunately, a small number of members within our own party denied the president – and the American people – a historic win,” the statement continued. “We are extremely frustrated that legislative obstruction of the BIF continues—not based on the bill’s merits, but because of a misguided strategy to use the bill as leverage on separate legislation. 

“Every day we do not pass this infrastructure package is another day of stalled economic activity, job losses, and missed opportunities to build back better. We stand with President Biden and urge our colleagues to do the same,” the Blue Dogs said.

The House Democratic leadership now appears poised to resume negotiations on both packages next week in preparation for a vote in a matter of days.

On Thursday night, Pelosi sent a letter to her Democratic colleagues that read in part, “As you know by now, the House will postpone the vote on the [bipartisan infrastructure bill].

“The good news is that most members who were not prepared for a yes vote today have expressed their commitment to support the BIF,” she continued. “I thank the overwhelming number of House Democrats who support both the BIF and the Build Back Better Act. It is both heartening and impressive to observe the strength of members’ engagement in the discussion.

“Many thanks to Chairman Jim McGovern and the members of the Rules Committee for the marathon hearing on the Build Back Better Act today,” Pelosi said. “The text of the legislation is online for your review. The Budget Committee, under the leadership of Chairman John Yarmuth, has released a section-by-section analysis of the legislation. 

“Your feedback is welcome and necessary, soon, to assist the Rules Committee as it prepares the BBB legislation for floor action. As you may recall, we are ready for the floor vote on the BIF, because the debate on the rule and the bill have already occurred,” the speaker concluded.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also released a statement, accentuating what the administration saw as the positive developments of the day.

“After decades of inaction on some of the most pressing issues for American families, today [Thursday] the president put forward a historic economic growth framework that will make the biggest investment in tackling the climate crisis in history, cut the cost of child care in half for a majority of middle class families, make universal pre-K a reality, and make the biggest progress in lowering the cost of health care in over 10 years,” Psaki said.

“Out of the gate, this unprecedented framework was welcomed across the country—including by organized labor, civil rights groups, business, and the climate community—and by every kind of Democrat in Congress. Legislative text is starting to become public, and the road to passing both critical parts of the president’s plan to make our economy deliver for middle class families—not just the wealthy—is clearer than ever,” she continued.

“As the president said this morning, we are proud of the hard work we’ve done with members of Congress over these last months, and we’re confident that soon we’ll pass both the Build Back Better Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal,” Psaki said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was a bit more succinct Thursday night.

“We’ll get it done,” he told reporters at the Capitol.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

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