Infrastructure uncertainty rankles vulnerable Democrats

Members urge colleagues to pass package and ‘take a win’

New Hampshire Rep. Chris Pappas said Democrats need to "take a win" and pass the infrastructure package.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New Hampshire Rep. Chris Pappas said Democrats need to "take a win" and pass the infrastructure package. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 30, 2021 at 6:59pm

A House vote on a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure package remained uncertain Thursday, further frustrating Democrats facing competitive reelection races who are clamoring to tout the investments back home. 

Democrats are defending the slimmest of majorities in both the House and Senate ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, and several incumbents facing tough races said this week that they want to see the bill pass. But that could be delayed by a standoff between moderate and progressive members.

Democrats clashed this week over whether the more than $1 trillion infrastructure bill should move in tandem with a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package covering a range of Biden administration priorities, including early childhood education and free community college as well as climate policy and expanded health insurance access. Progressives pledged to vote against the infrastructure package, raising questions about whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi would delay the vote. 

“I'm frustrated by the back and forth and the politicking we see on all sides,” New Hampshire Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas said Wednesday as negotiations gridlocked. 

“It's past the time for people to be issuing ultimatums and it's the time for people to get in a room and hash this out,” said Pappas, a Republican target in 2022.  

Demonstrating to voters that they can deliver on campaign promises is imperative for Democrats, who won the White House and control of Congress by campaigning on competent governing.

“People elected us to govern. And I think we've got a chance to do the biggest infrastructure bill that we've ever done, and we ought to do that,” California Democratic Rep. Ami Bera said Wednesday. Bera, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline program for vulnerable incumbents, stressed that Democrats need to also pass the broader $3.5 trillion package.

A frustrating process

Pelosi and Democratic leaders have said they still want to vote on the infrastructure package on Thursday, but the clash over the process put the vote’s future in question. Democrats in competitive races voiced frustration over the stalled process. 

“It's frustrating primarily because this is a big package. It takes a lot of negotiation,” said Nevada Democratic Rep. Susie Lee

Asked if lawmakers in battleground districts have communicated concerns to leadership about passing the infrastructure bill, Pappas said, “Many of us have been communicating this for the last few months.” 

“I regret that infrastructure got all tied up into other legislation that needs to be considered as well,” Pappas said. “So I think we should take a deal and take a win where we can get it.”

The sense of urgency extended across the Capitol Rotunda to the Senate, where Democrats in swing states also stressed that the bill needed to become law.

“I want to see it passed,” said Arizona’s Mark Kelly, who was part of the group that crafted the bill, which passed the Senate in August with 69 senators voting in favor, including 19 Republicans. Kelly stressed that more funding for ports of entry, as well as water infrastructure, were vital for his state, which is struggling with a drought. 

Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, also a top GOP target in 2022, also said, “The clock is ticking and we need to get this done.”

Kelly and Warnock were among the Democrats who touted the infrastructure bill in their states during the August recess. 

Asked how he would explain the bill’s stall to voters, Kelly said, “I often talk about how things in Washington don't work as well as we would hope. This stuff is hard, but it also sometimes highlights that there is dysfunction here. But this infrastructure bill, in the Senate anyway, is a good example of how we can come together to do something really positive for the country.”

Midterm impact?

Democratic strategists said their party’s ability to buck historical trends working against them in the midterms will come down to their ability to run on a message of cutting through gridlock and delivering tangible benefits to the American people. 

While delivering on any part of the Biden agenda would be a win for Democrats, the symbolism on this bill is especially rich. Improving the country’s crumbling infrastructure has been an elusive priority for both parties for so long that it even became a punchline during President Donald Trump’s administration, when the joke was that “infrastructure week” was always just around the corner. 

While the bill could stall over progressive priorities, moderate Democrats were the ones with the most to lose, Democratic strategists said. 

They will need the support of independent voters who are looking for signs that the lawmakers they elected can work with Republicans. 

“If a bunch of progressives in deep Democratic districts tank this bill, there will be hell to pay,” said one strategist who has worked on House races and spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely. “That is cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

Any sign of chaos in Washington, conversely, could heighten voters’ frustration with congressional gridlock and could feed into Republicans’ narrative that Democrats are too disorganized to get anything done, though House GOP lawmakers are themselves contributing to the gridlock by opposing the infrastructure package .

Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a former chairman of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, put it simply, “I don't think incompetence is popular among the electorate.”

Voters “don’t like chaos right now,” said another Democratic strategist, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “There is enough s--- going on without us adding problems. That’s not a good look.” 

But Democrats stressed the bill will eventually pass.

“It'll get done,” said Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who Republicans are targeting next year. “That's what I talk to my voters about. This is important, it's going to get done. This is just part of the process— the negotiation back and forth on some of the other legislation.”

“At the end of the day, people remember what we passed, not the timing of it,” Bera said. 

Vulnerable Democrats may not be the only ones who need to worry about any possible political fallout of the delay. Business lobbies, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Trucking Associations, made clear Thursday they were dismayed by House GOP opposition to the measure. 

Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told reporters Thursday that his group, which makes political endorsements, was keeping track of lawmakers’ maneuvering over the bill.

“At the end of the day, members are gonna vote, but we’re also, at the U.S. Chamber, going to remember the members who put in the hard work to get us to this point, and they deserve credit,” Bradley said. “And anyone who kind of stands in their way and blocks this bill, that’ll be remembered, as well.”

Kate Ackley contributed to this report