Progressive Democrats Stare Down Moderates In Battle Over Biden Agenda

Though a self-imposed deadline was missed, Democrats still have time to figure out how to get President Joe Biden's agenda through Congress.

WASHINGTON ― House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) delayed a vote on President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill Thursday after a revolt from the left wing of her Democratic caucus.

Progressive lawmakers led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, refused to support the bipartisan infrastructure bill until Democrats reach a deal on a key piece of the president’s legislative agenda, known as the Build Back Better Act.

“I am so proud of our caucus,” Jayapal said Thursday afternoon as it looked increasingly unlikely the infrastructure vote would happen. “I have never seen our caucus so strong.”

The postponement is a setback for Pelosi, but only a temporary one. Though they’re missing a self-imposed deadline, Democrats still have time to figure out how to win approval for both pieces of legislation. The House will be back in session Friday.

Progressives worried that if the House passed the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, which the Senate approved on a bipartisan basis earlier this year, Democrats would lose leverage in their efforts to also pass a robust bill that includes spending on climate, education and health care.

Moderate Democrats deeply involved in drafting the infrastructure bill do not support spending $3.5 trillion on the second measure as progressives have demanded, and they refuse to explicitly commit to voting for it.

With dozens of House progressives threatening to oppose the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and Republican lawmakers unwilling to lend any help, Pelosi projected confidence and continued trying to a reach a deal throughout the day on Thursday but seemingly conceded in a “dear colleague” statement to her fellow democrats after 9 p.m., calling it a “day of progress.”

“Discussions continue with the House, Senate and White House to reach a bicameral framework agreement to Build Back Better through a reconciliation bill,” Pelosi said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chair of the Senate Budget Committee and a main author of the original spending plan, hailed the progressive blockade in the House.

“I hope that gets us off square one and onto square two,” Sanders told HuffPost on Wednesday. “Both bills have got to go forward in parallel, in tandem, and that it’s imperative that we pass both of them.”

What happens next is unclear. Pelosi can schedule another vote on the infrastructure bill at any time, but with progressives dug in and moderates still in negotiations with Biden at the White House, Democrats find themselves frozen and beset by divisions that threaten to derail the president’s entire legislative agenda in Congress.

Still, Democrats maintain that Thursday’s vote being pulled in the House is but a speed bump toward passage of Biden’s broad agenda, and not a death blow.

“There was nothing magical about that vote being tomorrow,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said Wednesday. “Setting deadlines has moved things, which is the goal.”

Moderate Democrats led by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) have urged the House to vote on the infrastructure bill first, without linking it to the Build Back Better Act. And Manchin has said he doesn’t like the bill as envisioned by party leaders, saying it needs things like “work requirements” and “means testing” to exclude the poorest and richest Americans from getting benefits.

Manchin didn’t have much to say about progressive Democrats effectively blocking the bill in the House.

“I’m always willing to deal in good faith,” Manchin told HuffPost.

Manchin said Thursday he would only support a bill with $1.5 trillion in new spending, regardless of whether the amount is offset by increased tax revenue, but he has said little about which policies he would support within that amount of spending.

Manchin has been the bill’s most visible Democratic opponent, but not necessarily its most obstinate. Democrats are also pointing at Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) as a major holdout on Biden’s agenda. Sinema doesn’t support a $3.5 trillion bill and has refused to deliver specifics about what she would like to see in a reconciliation package, irking her colleagues and others close to Biden’s administration.

Sinema was hostile Wednesday when a reporter asked if she had anything to say to progressives about her position.

“I’m in the Senate,” she said, after having just entered the building.

Manchin and Sinema want the House to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill. But with House progressives holding the line, they’ll have to cut a deal on the social spending bill.

“Our two senators need to tell us what they’re for,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) told HuffPost.

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