Sharply divided House Democrats will face a key test of their ambitions to enact President Biden’s legislative agenda Thursday as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to call a vote on the first portion of the plan.
Progressives have promised to block the infrastructure bill — which would repair the nation’s roads and bridges and is strongly supported by moderates — out of concern that they would have no leverage to enact a second bill in Biden’s plan.
The follow-up bill, which faces resistance from centrists, is a sweeping effort to fortify and expand the nation’s social safety net with universal pre-K, paid family leave and expanded health programs. The social safety net bill is not yet written because Democrats cannot agree on its scope or size.
Pelosi (D-San Francisco) originally set the infrastructure vote for Monday, but moved it to Thursday. Further delays are possible. The speaker has never lost a major vote on the floor and it is unlikely she would do so now, although some have speculated she may need to do so to send a powerful message to centrist holdouts.
She said Wednesday she’s taking things “hour by hour.”
The vote comes during a remarkably fraught week on Capitol Hill, with vast implications for the Biden presidency and Democrats’ majorities in Congress.
Tensions are high over the infrastructure and social spending negotiations. In addition, Congress has been trying to figure out how to fund the government before money runs out at midnight Thursday and stave off a federal default on the nation’s debts in about three weeks.
Both chambers are expected to approve bills Thursday to avert a shutdown, but there is no immediate resolution to the debt crisis, which could unleash a downgrade in the nation’s credit and worries of a recession.
While Democrats could delay Thursday’s planned vote on the infrastructure measure, it would mark a substantial defeat and could stall the legislation for weeks.
“A lot is hanging in the balance — this whole agenda that President Biden has put forth,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland).
Success in the 2022 midterm elections may hinge on whether Democrats have made progress on their campaign promises. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) said his constituents won’t get bogged down in short-term delays in Congress, but will care about what’s included in the final product. In particular, he hopes to see a restoration of the state and local tax dedutions capped during the Trump administration, and affordable childcare.
“If we end this process having achieved those things, I’m going to win reelection,” he said.
Democrats have acknowledged that their social policy and climate bill, originally pegged as high as $3.5 trillion, will be pared down to meet centrists’ demands. But it is not yet known where the top-line figure will land and what policy would be cut to achieve it.
An ambitious plan to require pharmaceutical companies to negotiate drug prices in Medicare, a longtime Democratic campaign promise that would unleash hundreds of billions of dollars in savings to go to other health programs, will likely be cut or scaled back, according to several Democrats.
Thursday’s vote will also serve as a test for progressives, who have stood up to Pelosi’s request that they put aside their demands for the social spending bill in order to pass the infrastructure bill. In the past, progressives have backed down from their initial demands, concluding more modest reform was better than nothing at all. This time, they have shown signs that they’re not giving in.
They have little trust in centrist Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who haven’t publicly revealed what kind of social spending bill they would support. Because of the slim Democratic margin in the Senate, their votes would be needed to approve a bill. Both have fielded frequent meetings and calls with White House officials and other Democrats in recent days.
“This isn’t progressives versus moderates,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) tweeted. “This is the entire Democratic Party and Joe Biden versus Kyrsten Sinema.”
Manchin has been only slightly more forthcoming. He said Wednesday he opposed establishing new government programs that provide benefits to all people regardless of income. “I cannot — and will not — support trillions in spending or an all-or-nothing approach that ignores the brutal fiscal reality our nation faces,” he wrote in a statement.
While Manchin indicated that he might be willing to support a bill later this year, the reality of a 50-50 evenly split Senate provides additional motivation to other Democrats.
“We can’t delay these things,” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said on CNN. “Simply delaying them is just inviting a bad result …. We’re one heartbeat away from losing the majority in the United States Senate.”
Some Democrats downplayed the tensions.
“I think at the end of the day that we’re going to be able to get something passed that the American public will be proud of,” said Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas). “Any time there had been major pieces of legislation passed through this institution, there have been challenges.”