Biden headed to Capitol Hill to try to bridge Democratic divide

House Democrats have been waiting for Biden to weigh in on disputes over infrastructure, safety net bills

President Joe Biden, accompanied by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries and Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark, walks through the Crypt of the Capitol on the way to the House Democrats' caucus meeting in the basement of the Capitol on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
President Joe Biden, accompanied by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries and Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark, walks through the Crypt of the Capitol on the way to the House Democrats' caucus meeting in the basement of the Capitol on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 1, 2021 at 2:45pm

President Joe Biden will meet Friday afternoon with a deeply divided House Democratic Caucus that's struggling to move forward on a Senate-approved bipartisan infrastructure bill amid a fight over the other piece of his two-pronged economic agenda.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi had hoped to put the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which would reauthorize surface transportation programs and includes $550 billion in new funding for roads, bridges, broadband and other infrastructure projects, up for a vote by midnight Oct. 1, when a one-year extension lapsed.

But party centrists are still balking at the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package that would raise taxes to pay for expanded safety net and climate programs, which in turn has progressives unwilling to send the "physical" infrastructure bill to Biden's desk.

House Democrats have been waiting for Biden to weigh in on the dispute, although he has been negotiating all week with the two main Senate holdouts on the reconciliation bill, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Pelosi has jumped into those negotiations too, holding one-on-one talks with Manchin and Sinema on Thursday and Friday, according to a source familiar with the discussions.

Biden is set meet with House Democrats at 3:30 p.m. on Friday.

ALThough Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said the House would resume work on the bipartisan bill Friday, hints that a deal was not imminent became evident in the morning after a closed-door caucus meeting.

Rep. Kai Kahele, D-Hawaii, a progressive who's holding out on the infrastructure bill, said the only outcome of the caucus meeting was that there would be another meeting later in the day, and members should stay close.

"It's like a family, you know," he said. "You're sitting down and a lot of people are upset and a lot of people have things to say, and they need to be heard. And it was a long meeting, and we're going to do it again."

For many Democrats, the afternoon meeting will be their first chance to hear from Biden specifically on the disputes and ask him questions.

Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., said he thinks Biden will ultimately weigh in and make specific asks. "I think that would be pretty powerful. He's the president of our party, the leader of our party," he said.

Temporary extension

By 11 p.m. Thursday, it became clear that Pelosi did not have the votes for the infrastructure bill, and the current law expired. A Transportation Department spokesperson confirmed Friday that 3,700 agency employees had been furloughed and added that the agency is “taking every step we can to mitigate the impacts of this temporary lapse in authorization.”

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio told Democrats during the caucus meeting that he's prepared a 30-day renewal of the expired surface transportation programs in case the chamber isn't ready to vote today on the five-year bill.

“People are together,” DeFazio, D-Ore., told reporters after the meeting. “They’re just not agreeing that they’re together. There’s no acrimony.”

The Senate considered passing a short-term extension of the law late Thursday, but adjourned without doing so. That chamber is in session Friday and could approve the bill by unanimous consent if no senators object.

Pelosi had planned to have the House vote on the five-year bipartisan infrastructure bill on Thursday before the current transportation law expired at midnight.

But Pelosi was stymied by a fight between party progressives and centrists. Progressives argued that they would not vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the Senate and House had passed the second part of Biden’s economic agenda, a sweeping, multi-trillion dollar tax and spending bill containing funding for progressive priorities such as climate programs, paid leave, child and home health care and affordable housing.

Centrists like Manchin and Sinema, meanwhile, argued for scaling back that larger plan, which would be approved through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process in order to alleviate the need for GOP votes.

Manchin on Thursday confirmed his topline for the reconciliation measure is $1.5 trillion, which is less than half the $3.5 trillion most Democrats agreed to support.

Still, White House officials spent late Thursday in the Capitol meeting with Manchin and Sinema, trying to reach a deal. After those meetings, Manchin said he expected an agreement to come “soon,” though he resisted budging on his $1.5 trillion demand.

'I'm here, baby'

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal said an agreement over a framework for the larger bill would not suffice for members of her caucus. More than half of her 95-member caucus has vowed not to vote for the bipartisan bill without movement on the larger reconciliation measure.

"We want a vote because we want to be absolutely iron-clad sure that there's no misunderstandings and that it happens quickly,” the Washington Democrat said. “If somebody wants to propose something else, I'm certainly willing to listen."

Jayapal said she was willing to work over the weekend if needed to get a deal.

“I’m here, baby,” she said.

House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said Democrats "are more unified than is being reported in the press. But we want to pass both bills and we want to be assured that both bills passed the Senate.”

With razor-thin majorities in both the House and Senate, Pelosi can't afford to lose more than three Democratic votes in the House, while the Senate will need every Democrat’s approval in order to move forward with the reconciliation measure. She's also trying to get near universal Democratic support for the bipartisan infrastructure bill since few House Republicans are expected to support it.

Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., said that Pelosi asked members in the meeting to stand up if they supported the infrastructure bill. “I think most of the room stood up,” she said.

Bera, like DelBene a leader of the moderate New Democrat Coalition, echoed her assessment, saying "almost everyone in the room stood up." Bera added that it was possible a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package might not happen Friday since discussions on the broader reconciliation bill were taking longer.

"If it takes the weekend, you keep working through the weekend, but let’s get both of these done," he said.

But Pelosi's decision to delay the infrastructure vote rankled moderates. She committed to a group of moderate House Democrats last month that she planned to bring the infrastructure bill to the floor Sept. 27 for consideration, which she did. And while she's working to rally support for its passage, Pelosi has been unable to convince progressives that she had assured a concrete commitment from moderates on a deal for the larger measure.

Rep. Ed Case, a moderate Democrat from Hawaii, said Pelosi should hold the vote regardless of its outcome.

“I want to win the big vote,” he said, but acknowledged the measure was unlikely to pass. “But, you know, you can only yell and scream at each other in public for so long."

Added Case: “At some point, you've got to get it over with.”

Niels Lesniewski, Joseph Morton, Chris Cioffi, Jennifer Shutt, Mary Ellen McIntire, Caitlin Reilly, David Lerman and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.