Progressives not budging as infrastructure deadline looms

Group seeks concrete assurances on passing Democrats’ larger spending, tax priorities in budget reconciliation package

Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks with reporters after a rally Tuesday to promote climate benefits in the Democrats' budget reconciliation package.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks with reporters after a rally Tuesday to promote climate benefits in the Democrats' budget reconciliation package. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 28, 2021 at 5:52pm

House leaders are hoping to secure a bicameral agreement between moderate and progressive Democrats on a framework for their partisan spending and tax package in the next 48 hours to ease passage of a separate bipartisan infrastructure bill. 

But many progressive Democrats say the elusive framework is not enough to secure their support for the infrastructure bill, scheduled for a vote Thursday. They want more concrete assurances on how Democrats will pass the party’s larger spending and tax priorities contained in the budget reconciliation package and fear letting the infrastructure bill pass could ultimately give moderates an excuse to abandon or slow walk negotiations on the broader measure. 

Democrats are planning to move that package — which would fund climate programs and provide government assistance for child care, home-based health care, paid leave, free community college and more — through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process since Republicans oppose most of those policies. That means they can’t lose a single Democratic vote in the Senate or more than three in the House — and there have been more than a handful raising concerns. 

The Congressional Progressive Caucus met over Zoom Tuesday afternoon after Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in a broader caucus meeting Monday night, abandoned her commitment to them that the House would not pass the infrastructure bill before the reconciliation package. The majority of the group left their meeting committed to voting against the infrastructure bill Thursday since the reconciliation package won’t be done by then, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal said. 

[House Democrats look for a sign from the Senate on budget bill]

“This isn't about trust. It's just about verifying,” the Washington Democrat told reporters. 

Jayapal said a majority of her 95-member caucus still plans to oppose the infrastructure bill and the number “might be growing.”

Waiting on senators

House Democratic leaders acknowledged Tuesday that reconciliation negotiations were at a standstill until centrist Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia revealed the topline amount of spending and offsetting tax increases they will support. Both senators have said the $3.5 trillion topline that Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., Senate Budget Committee Democrats and the White House agreed to earlier this summer is too high.

“So we’ll see what that is. And hopefully it will reach the level that we need in order to pass both bills,” Pelosi told reporters Tuesday morning. 

The speaker sent a letter to House Democrats later Tuesday saying President Joe Biden is leading those negotiations “to advance his vision.”  

Biden held separate meetings with Sinema and Manchin at the White House Tuesday. Afterward, Manchin told reporters he did not give Biden a topline number.

"We had good, honest, straightforward negotiations," he said. "There was no commitments made. No commitments, from that standpoint, just good negotiations and talking about the needs of our country." 

“They have yet to burp up a number,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., said of Manchin and Sinema. “So that’s a problem.”

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said Manchin and Sinema seem to be “trying to carve out an image that they’re not Democrats.” He whispered the word “Democrats” as if it were profanity. 

“I think they have a problem figuring out what they’re going to cut out because a lot of this stuff, all of this stuff is very popular with the public,” he said.  

‘Give confidence’

House Democratic leaders have known that voting on reconciliation before infrastructure was their best path to passing both bills, but Pelosi cut a deal with moderates last month to bring the infrastructure bill to the floor this week before surface transportation programs that the measure reauthorizes expire Sept. 30. 

The speaker even hatched a plan last week to try to rush the reconciliation package to the floor ahead of the infrastructure vote. But leadership abandoned that because of the wide gap between moderates and progressives and even the House and Senate on topline numbers and policy. 

“Once the topline number is established, it will take a fair amount of work,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Tuesday. “I think it will be done relatively quickly, but it certainly couldn't be accomplished by the end of this week. However, we could accomplish by the end of this week a topline number and a framework for moving forward, which I think would give confidence to a lot of people in the House and around the country. So I'm hopeful that we could do that.” 

But progressives were wary of accepting a reconciliation framework over a vote.

“I'm in deep consideration, but I'm not a yes — yet,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said. 

Rep. Jared Huffman said the consensus from the Progressive Caucus meeting is that they’re “unwilling to decouple” the infrastructure and reconciliation bills and that they need to stand firm in opposition to the Thursday vote in order to recouple them.

“There was a lot of consensus — maybe more than I've ever heard in a Progressive Caucus meeting — and a lot of eloquence, a lot of passion, a lot of unity,” the California Democrat said. 

The clearest takeaway, Huffman said, was the “big number” of progressives saying “not only would they stand firm in the face of whipping, but that there is no amount of pressure that could change their vote.”

While many progressives stood firm, some offered some wiggle room.

“I’m not a yes until we have assurances that both bills will pass,” Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill, said. “If the President says that we have an assurance that both will go, that would be very significant for me.”

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who supports passing the infrastructure bill, said he understands his fellow progressives’ desire to secure more firm commitments on reconciliation but their strategy to leverage a bill moderates favor for one they’re more hesitant about may not help.

“Leverage tends not to work so well with allies,” he said. “Dialogue and engagement works better.” 

Welch said the sweeping reconciliation package Democrats are trying to pass now with a hodgepodge of social safety net programs is “ten times more complicated” than the 2010 health care law the party passed the last time they had unified government control. 

“And we're trying to do it in a tenth of the time,” he said. “So it's a real challenge.”

Highway backstop

Democrats were also scrambling Tuesday on how to backstop the surface transportation reauthorization law, which is set to expire Thursday. 

A five-year reauthorization is tucked into the larger bipartisan infrastructure bill, which also includes $550 billion in new spending. 

House Democratic leaders opted against including a short-term highway reauthorization in a continuing resolution the House passed to extend government funding through Dec. 3. The move would have been opposed by moderates who want to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill. 

House leaders want to use Thursday’s deadline to renew the authorization as another pressure point to get progressives to support that measure. Hoyer declined to specify whether leadership has a backstop for reauthorizing the highway program if the House can’t pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill. 

“If it doesn't [pass], you know, we'll have to determine what can be done,” he said. “But you're right, I don't want to speculate on that.”

DeFazio said even a short-term extension would be “disruptive” to state departments of transportation that rely on highway funding.

“They can’t begin a two-year project if funding only extends 30 days,” he said. “In this case, the extension would have way less funding and wouldn’t fund a lot of programs that are in this bill.”

On Tuesday, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure, lamented the decision to keep the reauthorization out of the CR. But he indicated the Senate, which is soon expected to take up a revised version, could add it.

“I would hope it would be part of the CR,” Cardin said. “We still have a few more days.”

If the highway bill expires, he said, “it probably prevents any new starts or partnerships with the states. It really, it just delays projects from moving forward.”