Infrastructure vote looks shaky as progressives balk, again

Some House Democrats want to review budget bill text and stronger assurances the measure can pass the Senate

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders says he’s disappointed drug price negotiation provisions were left out of the reconciliation framework.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders says he’s disappointed drug price negotiation provisions were left out of the reconciliation framework. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 28, 2021 at 2:51pm

Democratic leaders scrambled to shore up support for President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion reconciliation framework among party factions as they sought to finally vote Thursday on a bipartisan infrastructure package before the president lands in Europe.

Progressive lawmakers said they wanted to see the actual text and also wanted assurances it could pass the 50-50 Senate, with some even calling for a Senate vote first on the final text, which may not be ready for days.

House leaders posted an initial 1,684-page draft of the updated bill a little after 2 p.m. Eastern time, which the Rules Committee was preparing to start debate on.

But lawmakers were already angling to make further changes, potentially included in a managers amendment that could be incorporated before a floor vote. And it wasn’t clear yet what if any provisions would have to be dropped under the Senate’s “Byrd rule,” intended to prevent extraneous policy language from being included in filibuster-proof reconciliation bills.

“There’s some clarifications that will come forth because it’s always moving a bit,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday.

Even once they’ve had a chance to review the bill, however, some progressives said they needed a Senate vote on the reconciliation text before they would support the infrastructure bill.

“We need to see the two bills simultaneously move together,” Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar said. “If there is urgency in getting that done, the senators need to understand that urgency as well.”

Omar, the Congressional Progressive Caucus whip, said that, as it stands, there aren’t enough votes from caucus members for House leaders to be able to pass the infrastructure bill.

Progressive opposition spells trouble for the five-year infrastructure plan if Democratic leaders schedule a vote for later Thursday, as they said they hoped to. Surface transportation programs are set to expire Oct. 31, and lawmakers have been prepping another short-term extension as a fallback, which could run through Dec. 3.

That would be a blow to the president, however, who’s now ventured up to Capitol Hill twice in the last month to try to secure the needed votes for the infrastructure bill, which together with the climate, child care, health care and other spending in the reconciliation bill comprise the bulk of his domestic agenda.

‘I need you to help me

In remarks to the House Democratic Caucus on Thursday morning, Biden said his presidency, as well as Democratic control of Congress, could be on the line.

“I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week,” the president said, according to a source familiar with the meeting. “I need you to help me. I need your votes.”

Emerging from a progressive caucus meeting Thursday, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib told reporters she’s a “hell no” on the Senate-passed infrastructure bill.

“We need both bills to ride together, and we don’t have that right now,” Missouri Rep. Cori Bush added. “I felt a little bamboozled because this is … not what I thought was coming today.”

Not all progressives felt the same way about first securing Senate passage of the reconciliation bill. But others still felt they needed stronger assurances it would have the 50 votes needed to pass under the filibuster-proof process.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said he didn’t know if he’d vote for the infrastructure bill. “There’s got to be some other deeper guarantees on the Senate side,” he said.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said members of her caucus are “absolutely committed to staying through the weekend” if necessary to vote for the infrastructure bill, as long as they can see fully baked text of the reconciliation bill.

In releasing their framework earlier Thursday, White House officials said it was put together based on input from two key Senate centrists whose votes they’ve been courting: Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III.

Sinema promptly issued a statement citing “significant progress” on the reconciliation bill. “I look forward to getting this done, expanding economic opportunities and helping everyday families get ahead,” she said.

Manchin was a little more cagey in comments to reporters, however. “This is all in the hands of the House right now,” he said. “I’ve worked in good faith, and I look forward to continue working in good faith and that is all I have to say today.”

Sinema and Manchin are two of the lead negotiators on the bipartisan infrastructure bill that House progressives have been holding up to try to entice the two Senate moderates to back the broader budget package.

Meanwhile frustration began to build within the House Democratic Caucus over progressives’ stance.
“Let them go home and explain why they screwed the president and the public and the future,” California Rep. John Garamendi said.

“I wouldn’t vote against things that I’m for because I didn’t get everything I want. But every member of the caucus is going to have to answer that question,” Vermont Rep. Peter Welch said.

The two bills under discussion contain “things that all of us support and have been fighting for for ages,” Welch added. “So those are in jeopardy, depending on what we do. That’s the reality of the disease.”

Changes in the offing?

It also wasn’t clear the reconciliation framework was the final word, as Democrats in both chambers continued to press for changes.

Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a close ally of the House progressives, said he was encouraged by the White House proposal but disappointed that drug price negotiation provisions were left out, as well as Medicare coverage of dental and vision benefits and paid family and medical leave.

“You have the outline of a very significant piece of legislation. I want to see it made better,” Sanders told reporters. “This is a very big deal; I want to see it made even stronger.”

Sanders and others said talks were ongoing to try to add back some of the drug price negotiation provisions.

“If it doesn’t [make it in] the only reason it doesn’t is because of pharma and their lackeys in the Congress, in the House and the Senate,” House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., told reporters.

“But right now, we’re still trying to get an agreement. And I’m still optimistic that we will,” he said.

Other lawmakers said they were still pressing for tweaks. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., who won a close race in a January runoff, said he was looking for beefed-up provisions on solar energy credits and expanding Medicaid coverage in states where governors opted out.

“I’m encouraged but we’re not over the line and the work continues,” Ossoff said.

There also wasn’t clarity yet on how a $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions would be treated. Lawmakers from high-tax states like New York, New Jersey and California have pressed to remove the cap, but Biden’s framework didn’t mention the issue.

Democrats said they were certain some type of “SALT” relief would ultimately make it into the package.
They weren’t yet sure what it would look like, but Jayapal and Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., said at minimum it would be revenue-neutral. That could involve lifting the cap temporarily but then offsetting that by extending limits beyond their currently scheduled expiration after 2025.

“I cannot imagine that this can get all the votes necessary without some SALT relief,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.

And Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he was still looking to crack down further on billionaires’ tax avoidance.

Wyden’s preferred method — taxing unrealized capital gains annually — was jettisoned in the final bargaining before the White House proposal Thursday after some Democrats, including Manchin, felt it was too punitive, wouldn’t work as intended and might run into constitutional challenges. Instead, the White House went with a modified version of the initial House bill’s “surtax” on high-income households making more than $10 million.

Wyden said he’d still press for more, however, since the surtax doesn’t get at the root problem of untaxed wealth held by billionaires.

“As I indicated, you’ve got to do it right,” the Oregon Democrat said. “Or otherwise, you’ll have a situation where professional basketball players will have their taxes increase and the owners of the basketball team will have the possibility of not paying taxes.”

Wyden, who's among those still pushing for tougher drug price negotiation language, said generally of the state of play: "The deal isn't done until the Senate acts."

Paul M. Krawzak, David Lerman, Niels Lesniewski, Mary Ellen McIntire and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.