House Democrats delayed their vote on the Senate’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill as progressives continue to raise objections until a much larger social welfare bill is also complete.
The House had no additional votes after meetings went late into the evening. Both pieces of legislation are essential parts of President Joe Biden’s agenda, with moderate and left-wing Democrats fighting over which pieces will pass first.
How Washington Got Here
After years of the Trump administration talking about “infrastructure week,” Mr Biden was adamant that Democrats would pass a massive infrastructure bill. In turn, his infrastructure proposal essentially split in two, with the first half featuring items most people associate with the term like roads and bridges. That proposal passed with bipartisan support in late July, with Senate Minority Mitch McConnell and 18 other Republicans voting for the bill in August.
That turned out to be the easy part. Democrats also wanted to include spending on “human infrastructure” such as child care, paid family leave, tuition-free community college, home care for elderly people and people with disabilities, as well as measures to combat climate change. Initially, the bill was meant to be $6 trillion, but to appeal to moderate Democrats, party leaders trimmed it down to $3.5 trillion. That bill would be passed using a process called reconciliation, which would allow Democrats to pass the bill with only 51 votes as long as it was related to spending. Democrats currently have 50 votes in the Senate and Vice President Kamala Harris would break the tie.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially said she would not pass the bipartisan bill until the Senate also passed the reconciliation bill. But moderate Democrats objected and wanted a standalone vote on the bipartisan bill and said they would not vote for the social welfare bill unless there was a vote on the former. In turn, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised moderates a vote by 27 September. That date was pushed back to Thursday.
But progressive Democrats, including Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Progressive Caucus Chair Rep Pramila Jayapal, saying they would oppose the bipartisan infrastructure bill if reconciliation were not also included. Here’s who’s up, who’s down and who has the power.
It’s Still Joe Manchin’s Town
Plenty of people in Washington joke that by electing Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in their runoff races, Georgia voted to essentially make Sen Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from bright-red West Virginia, the god-emperor of the Senate.
Mr Manchin is the last Democrat elected statewide in West Virginia, where every county voted for Donald Trump, and is a vestige of a time when Democrats could appeal to Appalachia. As a result, Mr Manchin has become the linchpin for any piece of legislation Democrats want to advance. And he’s similarly touted himself as a fiscal conservative, even running an ad in 2012 touting the fact his wife cuts his hair.
As progressives began to object, Mr Manchin released a statement Wednesday objecting to the $3.5 trillion price sticker on the reconciliation bill, calling it “fiscal insanity.” On Thursday, he proposed the bill be $1.5 trillion. Late on Thursday evening, Mr Manchin met in the basement of the Senate with officials from the White House along with fellow conservative Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. After the meeting, Mr Manchin reiterated the $1.5 trillion number to reporters to “take care of our children, take care of our people at end of life, our seniors and we’re working hard on that.” Speaking of which...
How long can Kyrsten Sinema hold out?
Mr Manchin is not the only moderate Senator who has proven to be a headache. Sen Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona has been explicit she would not support a $3.5 trillion bill. In 2018, Ms Sinema is a first-term Senator who became the first Democrat to win a Senate seat from Arizona since 1988. She’s had multiple meetings with the White House and Biden administration officials.
But unlike Mr Manchin, who threw out his $1.5 trillion number, Ms Sinema hasn’t even given a price for the reconciliation bill that would work. That has aggravated some Democrats in the House, with Rep Ro Khanna of California telling CNN “Why is it that one senator should have this much power? We’re in a democracy.”
After the late-night basement discussion, while reporters swarmed Mr Manchin as he exited, Ms Sinema didn’t say a word to the media. Ms Sinema’s position may anger progressives as well as the White House, but she has leverage by refusing to give a number. As long as that’s the case, all anyone can do is wait for her to make a move.
Bernie Sanders, Pramila Jayapal and AOC gained the upper hand
Despite Mr Biden defeating him for the Democratic nomination for president, Democrats’ winning the Senate majority gave Sen Bernie Sanders a nice consolation prize: the chairman’s gavel on the Senate Budget Committee. That makes him responsible for shepherding the reconciliation bill, which includes plenty of his priorities.
But on Thursday evening Mr Sanders has expressed frustration at the idea the bipartisan bill would pass without the reconciliation bill being finished.
“It is an absurd way to do business to be negotiating a multi-trillion bill a few minutes before a major vote with virtually nobody knowing what’s going on,” Mr Sanders told reporters. “That’s unacceptable. And what I think has got to happen is that tonight, the bipartisan infrastructure bill must be defeated and we can then sit down and work out a way to pass both pieces of legislation.”
Earlier in the week, Ms Ocasio-Cortez had said the only way she would get to “yes” was to have a vote on reconciliation as well. But for progressives to make good on their threats, they needed to actually be willing to let the bill go down either on the floor or without a vote. And it looked like they gained the upper hand. Ms Jayapal told The Washington Post last week that the White House had told her not to change course, which means the Biden administration is essentially on their side.
Progressives got what they wanted by the vote not happening on Thursday evening and members like Ms Ocasio-Cortez and Ms Jayapal now have the peculiar position of being the president’s biggest defenders. But now the hard part comes. Mr Sanders, who already had to trim down the reconciliation bill, will have to go toe-to-toe with Mr Manchin, who will likely bring that number down lower, if not all the way down to $1.5 trillion.
Biden’s Legacy is on the Line
Mr Biden’s approval rating has taken a steady dive as many Americans disapproved of the way the United States left Afghanistan. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that Mr Biden’s approval rating is roughly even with voters, with 50 percent approving and 49 percent disapproving. The survey shows that while 57 percent approve of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, that is down from 66 percent in July and only 47 percent approve of his handling of the economy, that’s down from the high of 60 percent.
Mr Biden needs to inspire confidence among voters that he can pass comprehensive legislation, and infrastructure and reconciliation are probably his only big shots. With infrastructure, he can be seen as the bipartisan dealmaker who can charm Republicans while he can appeal to the left of his base with massive investments in clean energy, child care and expanding health care. It’s why his team went into overtime to lobby with Mr Manchin and Ms Sinema. But as of right now, his fate is in Congress’s hands.
House Moderates Faceplanted
Moderate Democrats began the process from the strongest position. They had the ability to tank reconciliation and pass infrastructure, which could allow them to show their bona fides and not be taken for granted as members like Ms Jayapal and Ms Ocasio-Cortez dominate headlines, which has caused a headache for some in Democratic leadership.
New Jersey’s Rep Josh Gottheimer, one of the leaders of the moderates in the House, was confident on Tuesday that “we’ll get the votes, we’ll land the plane.” Similarly, Ron Kind of Wisconsin, a moderate Democrat, told reporters late Thursday that he thought Democrats would finish their job.
But the date has passed and while progressives can claim a victory, moderates either have to tank the reconciliation bill when it hasn’t even been fully formed, or tuck their tail in between their legs. By the end of the night, Mr Gottheimer tweeted that the negotiations weren’t over yet and he was “grabbing some Gatorade and Red Bull.”
But moderates are going to need more than an energy drink to give their plan wings.
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