House delays infrastructure vote as last-minute talks hit wall

Negotiations to continue Friday in an effort to hold vote then

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., delayed a planned Thursday House vote on a Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill as negotiations on an intertwined partisan spending bill continued.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., delayed a planned Thursday House vote on a Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill as negotiations on an intertwined partisan spending bill continued. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 30, 2021 at 11:41pm

Speaker Nancy Pelosi abandoned a planned Thursday House vote on a bipartisan infrastructure bill after days of last-minute negotiations with holdout senators on the other piece of President Joe Biden’s economic agenda needed more time.

"There'll be a vote today," Pelosi said as she left the Capitol shortly after midnight, referring to Friday.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer sent a floor schedule update to members shortly before 11 p.m. Thursday saying the chamber would not vote that night. But he said the House is expected to complete consideration of the infrastructure bill Friday.

“The House will remain in recess subject to the call of the Chair during this same legislative day of September 30, and will reconvene no earlier than 9:30 a.m. tomorrow morning,” Hoyer announced.

It was not immediately clear whether the deal needed to secure the votes on the infrastructure bill would come together Friday. But House leaders tried late into the night Thursday to meet a midnight deadline to avoid expiration of the law authorizing federal spending on surface transportation programs. The bipartisan bill would provide a five-year reauthorization of existing programs plus $550 billion in new spending.

The Senate had considered passing a short-term extension but ultimately adjourned without doing so, guaranteeing at least a brief lapse in highway and transit spending authority. The chamber is scheduled to be in session Friday where if needed it could pass an extension sent over from the House via unanimous consent, assuming no senators object.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter A. DeFazio said Wednesday afternoon that if the infrastructure vote was delayed or the bill did not pass, 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,” the Oregon Democrat said. “One way or another, we will take care of it.”

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., a member of DeFazio’s committee, said that the highway law’s expiration might not have immediate impact.

“Shutting down projects won’t happen tomorrow, more likely, because it’s Friday,” Larsen said, but the impact would be felt “soon enough,” and not just among federal employees at the Department of Transportation.

According to a Sept. 21, 2020 Congressional Research Service report, an expiration of federal surface transportation law would mean the furlough of 3,500 to 4,000 non-exempt employees of the surface transportation-related agencies that the law authorizes. Those include the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Resistance

It had been clear for weeks that dozens of progressives would vote against the five-year infrastructure bill if it was brought to the floor without significant progress on a sweeping tax and spending package. The latter measure includes the bulk of Biden’s economic proposals that were left out of the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Democrats plan to pass that package — which is expected to contain funding for progressive priorities like climate programs, paid leave, child and home health care, affordable housing and more — through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process to alleviate the need for Republican votes. But they can’t afford to lose a single Democratic vote in the Senate or more than three in the House.

The uncertainty about getting enough Democrats on board to pass a multitrillion-dollar social and climate spending bill with those narrow margins is why progressives have pushed to hold off passing the infrastructure bill. They want to use that bipartisan measure that centrist Democrats helped write to leverage those more fiscally conservative lawmakers into supporting the reconciliation package.

In an effort to show progressives the reconciliation measure had a path to getting through the narrowly divided Congress, Biden spent the week negotiating with the party’s main holdouts, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia. The goal was to secure an agreement on the topline spending number and programs they’d support funding in the package.

A deal did not come together. Manchin told reporters Wednesday it would take weeks to negotiate those specifics and he didn’t feel rushed by progressives’ timeline. And on Thursday he publicly confirmed he could not support a price tag above $1.5 trillion, which is less than half the $3.5 trillion most Democrats agreed to support.

But Manchin and Sinema continued to negotiate. Late Thursday after the duo met with White House officials in the Capitol, Manchin told reporters they wouldn’t reach a deal that night but he expected they would come to some agreement “soon.”

“We're working as hard as we can,” he said. “No one's ever given up.”

‘Necessary things’

But Manchin also reiterated he’s not moved off the $1.5 trillion topline.

“I think $1.5 trillion does exactly the necessary things we need to do to take care of our children and take care of our people at the end of life, our seniors,” he said.

Pelosi, however, suggested the gap isn't as wide as it seems. "We're not trillions of dollars apart," she said.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in statement Thursday night that the administration and congressional Democrats "are closer to an agreement than ever."

"But we are not there yet, and so, we will need some additional time to finish the work, starting tomorrow morning first thing," she said.

The decision to delay the infrastructure vote falls short of a promise Pelosi made to a group of moderate House Democrats last month. The speaker committed to bringing the bill to the floor for Sept. 27 for consideration, which she did. But she also committed to rally support for its passage, which she tried to do but has yet to see through.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who had led the group of moderates that secured that commitment in exchange for supporting the budget resolution to begin the reconciliation process, has expressed confidence all week that the infrastructure bill would pass Thursday and that Pelosi would get the votes. The New Jersey Democrat remained optimistic despite the delay into Friday, tweeting, "It ain't over yet! This is just one long legislative day -- we literally aren't adjourning."