Infrastructure vote still on despite reconciliation stalemate

Authorization for surface transportation programs is scheduled to expire Thursday

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., talks with reporters after a rally to promote climate benefits in the budget reconciliation package in the Capitol on Tuesday.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., talks with reporters after a rally to promote climate benefits in the budget reconciliation package in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 29, 2021 at 8:31pm

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said late Wednesday that the House will move ahead with a Thursday vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, despite massive uncertainty that Democrats can pass it.

“The plan is to bring the bill to the floor,” the California Democrat told reporters after she and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer met with President Joe Biden at the White House.

Asked whether she would have the votes needed to pass it, Pelosi promised nothing.

“One hour at a time,” she said.

House Democrats have been anxiously awaiting the results of Biden’s negotiations with centrist Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia on the other piece of his economic agenda that is intertwined with the infrastructure bill. The duo have been the main — but hardly the only — obstacle to Democrats coming together to pass a sweeping tax and spending package through the partisan budget reconciliation process.

Pelosi thinks she can convince progressive House Democrats to support the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill if Biden can strike a deal with Sinema and Manchin on a topline spending figure and programs they’d support in the reconciliation package, a leadership source said. The progressives are threatening to oppose the infrastructure bill until the reconciliation package is on a clear path to House and Senate passage, though the exact threshold for progress varies by lawmaker.

When she returned from the White House Wednesday evening, Pelosi contended that Biden was still having that negotiation and seemed to hold out hope for a result overnight.

That ran contrary to Manchin’s assertion Wednesday afternoon that reconciliation negotiations were “going to take a while.”

“That’s going to be a week or two or three weeks. I mean there's a lot . . . [on] just the tax code itself,” he told reporters.

Sinema declined to comment on the negotiations.

There are two reasons Pelosi has not yet called off the Thursday vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. One is a deal she struck with moderates to pass it this week. The other is the need to avoid a Sept. 30 expiration of the law authorizing federal spending on surface transportation programs. The bill would provide a five-year reauthorization of existing programs plus $550 billion in new spending.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio said Wednesday afternoon that the plan was still to vote on the bipartisan bill Thursday. But if that plan changes, he said lawmakers would find a way to make sure highway and transit programs would not expire.

“I mean, there’s no way we’re going to shut down the Department of Transportation,” he said. “One way or another, we will take care of it, either through the passing of the [bipartisan bill] or if necessary some other form.”

‘Wishful spending’

Shortly after his comments to reporters Wednesday afternoon, Manchin issued a statement reiterating that he opposes the $3.5 trillion reconciliation topline, which most Democrats agreed to, because of concerns about inflation. He also restated his interest in limiting the scope of tax increases to ensure the U.S. remains globally competitive.

“Overall, the amount we spend now must be balanced with what we need and can afford — not designed to reengineer the social and economic fabric of this nation or vengefully tax for the sake of wishful spending,” he said.

Manchin’s statement also reiterated his interest in means-testing social safety net programs that the reconciliation package would fund to help “those who need it the most, not spend for the sake [of] spending.”

Despite Manchin promising in the statement to “continue to negotiate in good faith,” it did nothing to shed light on what spending and policies he would support, which is what other Democrats have been anxiously awaiting to hear.

Manchin’s statement hardened progressives’ resolve to oppose the infrastructure bill absent action on the reconciliation package, which contains the bulk of their priorities like child care, education and affordable housing subsidies and expansive climate, health care and paid leave programs.

“I can tell you that his statement has just probably created at least a bunch of more votes on the House floor against the bipartisan bill,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., told reporters.

Democrats of all ideological stripes have acknowledged that both pieces of Biden’s domestic agenda are frozen until Manchin and Sinema explain what they support, not just what they oppose.

“There has been no clarity in what they actually want,” CPC Whip Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., said.

But Manchin told reporters Wednesday he felt no pressure to deliver those specifics. “I didn’t know I was on their timetable,” he said of progressives.

“The bottom line is, I've been very, very straightforward and open,” he said. “They know exactly where I am.”

Pelosi had promised progressives months ago that she wouldn’t bring the infrastructure bill up for a vote in the House until the reconciliation package passed both chambers. But she also promised moderates last month that the infrastructure bill would get a vote this week before the Sept. 30 expiration of the authorization for surface transportation programs.

The speaker initially tried to fulfill both commitments but she acknowledged in a private Democratic Caucus meeting Monday evening that she couldn’t wait on the reconciliation package to be done to pass the infrastructure bill.

Since then, Pelosi and her leadership team have been waiting on Biden to cut a deal with Sinema and Manchin.

“One of the things that I’ve said [is] I can’t keep a commitment that the Senate has made impossible to do,” Pelosi told reporters Wednesday morning. “But what I have also said is we’re not proceeding with anything that doesn’t have an agreement between the House and Senate. And that’s what we’re working on.”

Highway deadline

Authorization for surface transportation programs is scheduled to expire Thursday without congressional action — a move that would grind federal dollars to state departments of transportation to a swift halt.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee, said he and other Senate Democrats have talked to Schumer about that. They want to attach a short-term extension of the current authorization, which is already operating under a one-year extension, to the continuing resolution the Senate is expected to pass by Thursday to keep the government funded.

But the Maryland Democrat said Schumer has not committed to adding an extension to the CR because of the House effort to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which would prevent the need for a short-term extension.

“We don’t want to get in the middle of the fight, right?” Cardin said of the House drama. “So that’s our problem.”

House leaders, however, have acknowledged the challenge of getting progressives on board.

“Well we're working on that as we speak,” Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said midday Wednesday. “It's been almost 24 hours a day, for the last three days.”