Democrats still feuding as infrastructure deadline nears

Democrats’ self-imposed Sept. 27 deadline at risk as factions dig in

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., speaks with reporters as she arrives for the House Democrats’ caucus meeting in the basement of the Capitol on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., speaks with reporters as she arrives for the House Democrats’ caucus meeting in the basement of the Capitol on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 21, 2021 at 3:00pm

As the House approaches a Monday deadline to vote on a bipartisan infrastructure bill, moderate and progressive Democrats are each holding a hostage.

Progressives say they won’t back the Senate-passed infrastructure bill, which includes $550 billion in new spending, unless the larger, Democratic-driven $3.5 trillion reconciliation package passes both chambers first.

Moderates, meanwhile, say they won’t support the reconciliation measure unless the bipartisan infrastructure bill passes on Monday as scheduled.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said she conducted a third survey of her 95-member group Tuesday and a “majority” — she declined to specify the number — remains ready to vote against the Senate-passed infrastructure bill, negotiated mostly by centrists from both parties, if leadership sends it to the floor Monday.

The reconciliation package containing the rest of Democrats’ economic priorities is not expected to be finished by then, and progressives want the House and Senate to pass it before they support the infrastructure bill.

Jayapal reiterated progressives’ position during a one-on-one meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday.

“I just told the speaker where we were,” Jayapal said when questioned if she had asked Pelosi to delay the infrastructure vote. “The speaker doesn’t like to bring up bills that aren’t going to pass.”

Pelosi declined to say whether she would consider delaying the infrastructure vote.

“We’re going to get our work done on our reconciliation bill,” she said. Asked if Democrats can do that by Monday, Pelosi said, “That’s the plan.”

Leadership has other procedural options to derail the infrastructure vote, like not bringing the House into session Monday or bringing the bill up under suspension of the rules with a likely insurmountable two-thirds threshold for passage. But there’s no indication they are considering such workarounds.

In an apparent effort to pressure leadership, more progressives went public with their willingness to oppose the infrastructure bill.

“It is the only leverage we have to force the Senate to deliver the Biden Build Back Better agenda,” Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson tweeted, referring to the reconciliation package.

Not all progressives support derailing the infrastructure bill for leverage on the reconciliation measure.

“I’d like to pass them both. But if it looks like we can only pass one, I’m not gonna play games and get neither,” Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen said. “One in the hand is better than two in the bush.”

Sept. 27 for now

House leaders committed to the Sept. 27 deadline for the infrastructure vote last month in order to get a group of 10 moderate Democratic holdouts to support the fiscal 2022 budget resolution needed to kick off the reconciliation process. The moderates who demanded the “date certain” felt it would decouple the infrastructure bill from the reconciliation package.

New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the leader of the moderate group, said Tuesday that he expects Pelosi will follow through on her commitment to get Democrats to vote for the bill by Monday.

“Nobody is better than Speaker Pelosi at getting votes. She committed to getting votes, and I know she will,” he said.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters Tuesday the infrastructure bill would go to the floor Monday and the reconciliation bill will follow when it’s ready.

“I expect both to pass in the relatively near future,” the Maryland Democrat said.

Hoyer acknowledged that the reconciliation package will take longer because there are still changes to work through in marrying the House proposals with the Senate’s and vetting what’s agreed upon for compliance with the Senate’s so-called Byrd rule, which requires provisions to have a more than merely incidental impact on the budget.

“That may well be the case that it’s not ready for next week, but we’re going to do it as soon as we possibly can,” he said.

As for the progressives’ threat, Hoyer said he’s talked to several who plan to vote for both bills “whenever they come up,” as leadership is urging.

“When you’re in a foxhole, and you need every possible person in that foxhole to help you win the battle, not cooperating with one another in accomplishing those objectives is not helpful,” he said.

Surface transportation deadline

Pelosi said after striking the deal with moderates last month that the Sept. 27 date wasn’t much of a concession. The House had always planned to pass the infrastructure bill, which contains a five-year reauthorization of surface transportation programs, before the current authorization expires Sept. 30, she said.

In a sign that they’re relying on it passing, House leaders did not include a surface transportation extension in the continuing resolution they released Tuesday to provide a stopgap for government funding through Dec. 3.

Hoyer said Democratic leaders are likely to conduct a formal whip operation to get their members to support the infrastructure bill. House Republican leaders, however, have urged their members to oppose it, and it’s not clear how many GOP “yes” votes would be available to offset any progressives voting “no.”

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York said his party won’t count on the GOP to deliver votes.

“We can’t count on House Republicans for anything,” he said Tuesday.

Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, who co-chairs the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus that helped negotiate the bill, has rallied his fellow Republicans to back the measure. GOP support has fluctuated from as high as 40 members earlier this summer to as low as eight after it appeared Democrats remained committed to linking it with the reconciliation package, Fitzpatrick said.

“Linkage and delinkage has been the operative issue for so many Republicans, and everybody’s got a different definition of what that means to them,” he said.

Fitzpatrick said Monday he hoped to have an updated estimate of GOP support for the bill within 48 hours after talking to more members. But one of his early conversations proved promising.

“One of my colleagues who I never thought would be ‘yes’ told me he’s leaning ‘yes’ on it,” he said. “So I think there’s going to be some surprises.”

‘Be prepared for adjustments’

Completing the reconciliation package this month was always ambitious, but it’s been further complicated by another commitment that Pelosi made to the moderates — that the House wouldn’t take up a reconciliation package that can’t pass the Senate. Pelosi reiterated those commitments in a “Dear Colleague” letter Monday night.

“I have promised Members that we would not have House Members vote for a bill with a higher topline than would be passed by the Senate. Hopefully, that will be at the $3.5 trillion number,” she said. “We must be prepared for adjustments according to the Byrd rule and an agreed to number.”

Democrats have not yet resolved the disagreement over the $3.5 trillion topline that Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., oppose, let alone disputes over specific policy provisions. And senators are in the early stages of vetting the package with the Senate parliamentarian to ensure it complies with the Byrd rule.

There’s virtually no scenario under which Democrats would have a reconciliation package ready to send to the House floor next week that has gone through the Byrd rule review and has the blessing of all 50 Democrats. The moderate House Democrats who negotiated the deal with Pelosi have their own demands for reconciliation, but their primary focus has been the infrastructure bill.

Hawaii Rep. Ed Case, one of those moderates, said he expects the House will pass the infrastructure bill despite progressives’ threat because the Sept. 27 vote will “strip things away to their essence.”

“The question is: Do you support the largest infrastructure investment in our history? Do you support President Biden’s top domestic agenda item? And do you support a Congress that works?” he said. “It becomes that simple.”