Divided Democrats Lurch Toward Vote on $1 Trillion Infrastructure Bill

WASHINGTON — Divided House Democrats, urged on by President Biden, moved late Friday toward a vote on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and an agreement between balking centrists and an emboldened liberal wing to pass a $1.85 trillion social policy, climate and tax package by mid-November.

A daylong stalemate between House progressives and a half-dozen centrist Democrats began to crack after the president called in to a meeting of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and, over speakerphone, pleaded with them to trust him and one another.

For the third time since early October, Mr. Biden put his own credibility on the line, urging Democratic unity on his agenda, but for the first time, he asked liberals directly to end their monthslong blockade and send him the public works measure immediately. He backed passage of a rule for debating the social policy bill, called the Build Back Better Act, as a tangible sign that it, too, would soon pass.

“He urged us to trust him,” said Representative Jared Huffman, Democrat of California, “but not blindly.”

At 9 p.m., Mr. Biden made that plea public: “I am urging all members to vote for both the rule for consideration of the Build Back Better Act and final passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill tonight,” he wrote. “I am confident that during the week of Nov. 15, the House will pass the Build Back Better Act.”

The result was that Democrats effectively put their social policy and climate bill on hold, putting off the progressives’ priority, and pivoted instead to the infrastructure package championed by moderates, which passed the Senate in August with bipartisan bonhomie. Liberal House members had been holding that bill hostage, fearing that sending it to Mr. Biden’s desk would free up centrist Democrats to peel away from the social safety net and climate bill.

Centrist Democrats, in turn, balked at supporting the social policy plan without a formal estimate of its cost and economic effects. Progressives initially refused to back the public works bill, maintaining their position that both measures had to pass together.

But with Speaker Nancy Pelosi pressing the House toward a showdown vote and Mr. Biden weighing in, Democrats far from the leadership suites went to work on a compromise, working to extract what they called an ironclad assurance from the six centrists that they would eventually vote for the social welfare bill the week of Nov. 15 if the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis tracked with the White House’s assessment of the measure’s cost.

“Rank-and-file members are working together to get things done,” Representative Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin, said, flashing a thumbs-up sign.

Mr. Biden and Democratic congressional leaders started Friday with high hopes that both measures would pass in a triumphant flourish. An off-year electoral drubbing this week raised the stakes for anxious Democrats eager to prove that their party could deliver while in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House.

But as day turned to night, lawmakers were still struggling toward an accord.

“Welcome to my world — this is the Democratic Party,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California told reporters at the Capitol as she announced the postponement of the social policy bill. “We are not a lock-step party.”

“It’s an additional challenge,” she added. “But I see every challenge as an opportunity.”

Passage of the infrastructure legislation would be a much-needed and long-delayed victory for Mr. Biden — and a welcome break for Democrats, who could spend next week’s Veterans Day break traversing their districts to show off the roads, bridges, tunnels, transit lines and airports due for a huge infusion of federal support.

Under President Donald J. Trump, the phrase “infrastructure week” became something of a running joke, because he never came through with progress on an issue that lawmakers in both parties routinely cited as a shared priority.

Mr. Biden clearly would relish the contrast.

But passage depended on liberal Democrats trusting the their centrist colleagues, and the moderates offering the kind of solid assurances that they had balked at providing.

“At a certain point, we have to trust one another,” said Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont, clearly exasperated as he emerged from a closed-door meeting of the Progressive Caucus on Friday night.

Earlier, in a private show of hands, at least 20 members at that meeting initially indicated they were ready to oppose the bill without a vote on the social safety net package. But as the meeting stretched on, member after member said Mr. Biden’s phone calls, to lawmakers individually and the group collectively, were having an effect.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was called twice by President Biden in an effort to ease passage of the infrastructure measure.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

For Mr. Biden, a frontal appeal was a shift in strategy. Two trips to the Capitol in recent weeks had left the factions somewhat confused, because while the president repeatedly said he wanted Democrats to vote for both bills, he was vague about the timing and sequence of those votes.

On Friday, he was not. Mr. Biden said at the White House that he was asking every House member “to vote yes on both these bills right now.”

He concluded with a succinct message for lawmakers: “Let’s get this done.”

He followed up with private calls to moderate skeptics balking at supporting the social policy bill. Later, Mr. Biden twice phoned Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the leader of the Progressive Caucus, and postponed a planned weekend trip to his home on the Delaware shore as the negotiations stretched into Friday night.

The president’s approval ratings have declined in recent months amid concerns about increasing inflation, a persistent pandemic and the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

And he returned from an overseas trip this week to find grim political realities at home, after Republicans won the governor’s race in Virginia and came closer than expected to defeating the Democratic governor of New Jersey. The results underscored a sense of dread among Democrats who had already been bracing for losses in the 2022 midterm elections that would cost them control of Congress.

Mr. Biden had urged House members “to vote yes on both these bills right now.”Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

But if anything, the prospect of losses deepened the divisions imperiling both pillars of the Mr. Biden’s agenda. Liberals, moderates and conservatives had all said the lesson of their off-year election rebuke was that voters needed to see action and competence.

“We were already in high gear to get it done, but if there’s a higher gear, we certainly went into it,” Ms. Jayapal declared.

But if liberal Democrats from safe seats were dug in on their ambitious social welfare and climate change bill, those from swing districts were clearly spooked.

Among the Democrats who demanded a better handle on the social welfare bill’s costs were members from tenuous districts, such as Jared Golden of northern Maine, Stephanie Murphy of Central Florida and Abigail Spanberger, whose suburban district outside Richmond, Va., swung sharply right.

By midday Friday, Democratic efforts to secure legislative wins had already stalled as a 15-minute House vote dragged on for more than seven hours — a record, lawmakers said, for the longest vote in the chamber — as Ms. Pelosi toiled to line up support. Republicans, united in opposition to the social policy bill and gleeful over the chaos, forced additional procedural votes to further derail the process.

“Where are the Democrats today?” said Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader. “Breaking their own rules, setting new records just keeping votes open, and trying to intimidate and bully their own members to vote for something.”

Democratic leaders tried to use an analysis by the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation and a White House analysis of the spending costs to win over the holdouts, to no avail. Top White House aides were seen entering Ms. Pelosi’s office as party leaders struggled to win over the moderates.

“It’s a very difficult task, and we’re working on it,” said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, as he brushed away questions Friday about whether Democrats would have the necessary votes.

Eventually, top Democrats pulled back on their plans to march forward on the social policy bill and instead signed onto a plan proposed by leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus to shelve it and move to a vote on the infrastructure plan. They would first take a procedural vote on the safety net and climate plan that would pave the way for considering it later — a show of “good faith,” its proponents said, according to a person with knowledge of discussions within the Congressional Black Caucus.

“What I do know: If I don’t get this and I don’t get this, and we don’t move for something, then we get nothing,” said Representative Joyce Beatty of Ohio, the chairwoman of the caucus. “And everybody wants both of the bills to pass.”

As night fell on Friday, however, it was unclear whether the gambit would succeed. Ms. Pelosi huddled with some of her top deputies on the House floor as she fielded phone calls and pored over what appeared to be a spreadsheet of how lawmakers planned to vote.

“The goal posts moved rather dramatically, so we’re trying to find a way that we can get them back where they need to be and get to yes,” Mr. Huffman said. “There are other concerns that have to be addressed, there are assurances that have to be sufficient” from the moderates, he added, before liberals allow the infrastructure bill to pass.

For some progressives, no amount of assurances may be sufficient. Representative Cori Bush, Democrat of Missouri, said she was a “hard no” on passing the infrastructure bill without also passing the social policy plan.

“There is no phone call I could get or offer that could change my mind,” she said, adding that progressives’ trust in their centrist colleagues was “hanging by a thread.”

Luke Broadwater and Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.

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