House punts on infrastructure, passes highway bill extension

New reconciliation draft not enough for progressives to back quick vote on bipartisan Senate bill

Speaker Nancy Pelosi had hoped for an infrastructure vote Thursday.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi had hoped for an infrastructure vote Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 28, 2021 at 8:30pm

Both the House and Senate Thursday moved to extend the 2015 surface transportation law through Dec. 3 after House Democrats fell short in securing enough progressive votes to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill that represents a cornerstone of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda.

Progressives have tied their support for that bipartisan bill, which would reauthorize federal highway programs for five years, to a larger package of Biden’s domestic priorities, including child care and climate change. The extension would allow the government to sustain highway and transit programs through Dec. 3.

Even before the House voted 358-59 to extend the authorizing law, the Senate agreed by unanimous consent to deem the measure passed, once it gets to the Senate, if it’s identical to a Senate version.

Though Biden met with the caucus Thursday to announce a smaller framework and urge them to pass it, progressives remained unconvinced that Senate Democratic holdouts Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona would endorse the bill. Though Sinema sent out a statement supportive of the framework, she did not explicitly say she would vote for it. Manchin, too, was noncommittal, though late Thursday he tweeted praise for the framework.

Facing an Oct. 31 deadline to reauthorize the current highway law, leadership Thursday evening abruptly opted for a short-term extension when they realized they did not have the votes for the bipartisan bill.

“If we vote for the BIF [bipartisan infrastructure framework], I think that’s it,” said Rep. Juan C. Vargas, D-Calif., a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I think we lose the other bill. I don’t trust what the senators are going to do.”

“Hell no to the BIF,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., a fellow progressive.

[Infrastructure vote looks shaky as progressives balk, again]

That resistance didn’t abate even after the House Rules Committee met to debate the text of the larger measure, with some progressives saying they were skeptical that Manchin and Sinema would actually back the plan.

“Basically, it’s trust of Manchin and Sinema,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., summing up progressive concerns after the CPC met Thursday morning.

A source familiar with negotiations said the House will return next week to continue negotiations on both packages.

The delay frustrated moderate Democrats, who said they were anxious to demonstrate results after months of negotiations. "The fact is, is that we still got to come back next week, and we got to face the infrastructure package and work on the framework," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif. "But it wasn't a good day."

House Democratic leadership had felt urgency to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which the Senate passed Aug. 10, in order to give Biden a win before his appearance this weekend at a meeting of the Group of 20 industrial and emerging nations; they’re also concerned about a tight Nov. 2 gubernatorial race in Virginia, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe faces an aggressive challenge from Republican Glenn Youngkin.

“We cannot send our president across the water to lead the world without showing leadership ourselves,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., a progressive who said early Thursday that he would vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill if it were put to a vote.

Urgent deadline

But it was the Oct. 31 deadline that caused the most urgency.

“Let’s do it in a timely fashion,” urged Speaker Nancy Pelosi at her weekly press conference, hours before abandoning plans to put the bipartisan bill up for a vote. “Let’s just not keep having postponements and leaving any doubt as to when this will happen.”

This will be the third time the surface transportation law has been extended; it was first extended for a year in September 2020 and extended again Oct. 2.

Before the House voted to extend the law Thursday, the CPC sent out a statement saying it “overwhelmingly” supported the framework of the larger bill, but still wanted to see legislative text before backing the infrastructure bill.

“I think it’s going to be quick,” said CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., on CNN, adding they wanted to send Biden to the G-20 with an endorsement of the framework. “Let us get through it…I really think it’s going to be quick here for us to pass both these bills through the House.”

Niels Lesniewski and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.