House sends infrastructure bill to Biden without budget vote

Democrats breathe sigh of relief after key part of Biden agenda is passed

From left, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.,and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., turn away from the cameras after announcing their plans to move forward with the infrastructure and larger spending bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
From left, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.,and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., turn away from the cameras after announcing their plans to move forward with the infrastructure and larger spending bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 5, 2021 at 11:35pm

Buoyed, finally, by forward movement on a larger package of President Joe Biden’s domestic priorities, the House late Friday cleared a Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill that pours billions of dollars into roads, bridges, water systems, transit and broadband.

The long-awaited House vote sends the bill, which passed the Senate in August, to Biden for his signature. 

The House vote was 228-206, with 13 Republicans backing it despite GOP leadership whipping against the bill. All but six Democrats voted for the measure, despite the House not voting in tandem on the larger budget reconciliation package as progressives had demanded for months. 

Instead, Democrats were forced to accept a vote to adopt the rule that sets debate parameters on the reconciliation bill as a sign of progress on that measure. 

Still, “it’s a huge win,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., who argued that passage of the bipartisan bill marked progress. “This is a historic investment, not just in infrastructure, but in the infrastructure that will take us to the 21st century.”

Malinowski, who had originally backed a more sweeping infrastructure bill that passed the House July 1, said while the bill “may not give us everything we wanted, it does give us everything we need.”

‘Only regret’

Regardless of what happens with the larger reconciliation measure, Democrats said they were heartened that the infrastructure measure was going to Biden’s desk. 

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., said Democrats could point to that legislative success in 2022 campaigns.

“My only regret is we didn’t do it before the Virginia [gubernatorial] election,” he said. “Would it have controlled the election? No. … I think it would have made a difference, though. And given how close the election was, it would have pumped oxygen into the narrative over the weekend.” 

Despite the bill’s bipartisan origins -- it was negotiated by a group of up to 22 bipartisan Senators over months this summer --  the measure was far more partisan in the House than in the Senate, where 19 Republicans and every Democrat voted for the bill in the evenly divided chamber.

The bipartisan bill would reauthorize surface transportation and water programs for five years, adding $550 billion in new spending. 

It includes $110 billion for roads, bridges and major projects; $39 billion for transit and $66 billion for rail; $65 billion for broadband; $65 billion for the electric grid; $55 billion to upgrade water infrastructure and $25 billion for airports. 

It has been called a “generational investment” in infrastructure by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, though Democratic House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio was originally dismissive of the initial agreement, saying it was not ambitious enough. DeFazio, D-Ore., ultimately backed the bill.

Progressive wall

Still, the measure ran into a wall in the House after Democratic congressional leadership linked it to the larger economic package, which included money for universal pre-K, child care, climate programs and more. 

Progressives, led by Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., initially vowed not to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the reconciliation package had passed the House and Senate amid concerns that moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona wouldn’t support it.

A group of 10 moderate House Democrats sought to delink the two bills. After threatening to vote against the budget resolution needed to begin the reconciliation process, they secured a commitment from Speaker Nancy Pelosi to have the House vote on the infrastructure bill Sept. 27. 

But the committed vote never happened amid progressives insistence that both bills move together. 

The resulting standoff led to a series of false starts, where Democratic leadership planned twice for a vote on the bipartisan package only to renege after realizing they did not have the votes to pass it. Democrats cannot lose more than three votes in the House and still pass legislation, assuming no Republicans vote with them. 

The inability to pass the bipartisan package led Congress to pass two short-term extensions to federal surface transportation law, which Congress already had extended for a year in September 2020. The current extension, which passed Oct. 31, would have expired Dec. 4. 

Friday drama 

The months of intraparty dispute hit a new low Friday when Democratic leaders thought they finally had the votes to pass both the infrastructure and reconciliation bills. 

“We started this day thinking that we had a deal, thinking that we were going to cast our votes. We were excited to cast those votes,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., said. “And then a small cohort of our caucus moved the goalposts.”

Huffman was referring to a group of six moderates who said they couldn’t back the reconciliation package until they saw a Congressional Budget Office score detailing its cost. 

The White House issued a preliminary estimate showing the price tag as roughly $2 trillion, which would be more than offset by tax increases, stepped up tax enforcement and provisions to lower the cost of prescription drugs. 

Ultimately, five of the six moderates put out a joint statement saying they would vote for the reconciliation package as soon as they get the CBO score “but in no event later than the week of November 15th.”

The Democrats signing the statement -- Ed Case of Hawaii, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Stephanie Murphy of Florida, Kathleen Rice of New York and Kurt Schrader of Oregon -- added a key condition, however. 

They said they would only vote for the package if it remains unamended “other than technical changes” and the CBO score is “consistent with the toplines for revenues and investments” in the preliminary White House estimate. If it is inconsistent, they said, “we remain committed to working to resolve any discrepancies in order to pass the Build Back Better legislation.”

Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, who was among the moderate Democrats demanding a CBO score, did not sign the statement. 

The Congressional Progressive Caucus worked with Biden to get the group of moderates to sign the statement committing to vote for the reconciliation package. And in return, they agreed to vote for the infrastructure bill. 

“All of our colleagues have also committed to voting tonight on the rule to move the Build Back Better Act forward to codify this promise,” Jayapal, the Progressive Caucus chairwoman, said in a statement. “The President has affirmed these members gave him the same commitment.” 

Most Democrats were frustrated with all the last-minute haggling. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., called it a “clusterf---.” Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., decried the profound “lack of trust.”

Still, many Democrats defended Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her handling of what has been an often messy, stop-and-start process, citing their party’s narrow majority, the complexity of the bills and restrictions imposed by the Senate -- from rulings handed down by the parliamentarian to demands from a pair of moderate Senate Democrats that the original reconciliation package get pared back.

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the latest version of the budget reconciliation package was crafted to reflect those Senate requirements, including its dollar amounts and specific wording, even as House members were the ones taking the votes.

“All the heavy lifting’s occurred at the House while the Senate sits glibly by and waits for us to do the work so they can go over it,” Grijalva said. “I'd like to see it go over [to] the Senate as quickly as possible so that they begin to assume some real responsibility over there.”

David Lerman, Laura Weiss, Suzanne Monyak, Ellyn Ferguson and Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.