Big stakes for Biden, Pelosi in advancing Democrats' agenda

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 13: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) arrives for a classified briefing by U.S. Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger for congressional leaders on the security preparations being arranged for the Capitol Complex ahead of a rally taking place over the coming weekend on Capitol Hill on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021 in Washington, DC. Chief Manger says that temporary security fencing around the Capitol Building would go up ahead of the "Justice for J6" rally which is expected to draw people calling for justice for those arrested after the violent insurrection on January 6th, earlier this year. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
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Democrats are deeply divided over how to enact President Biden's agenda, but they agree on one thing: No one comes close to Speaker Nancy Pelosi's acumen in muscling bills through the House.

But with the slimmest House Democratic majority of her career and Biden’s top legislative priority hanging in the balance, the San Francisco Democrat is facing perhaps the most complex test of those skills.

As she tries to win House approval of Biden’s "Build Back Better" plan — the centerpiece of his economy and social policy agenda — Pelosi finds herself in a familiar position, caught between progressives who want to enact the most ambitious social programs since the New Deal and centrists who are leery of spending trillions of dollars.

Both sides have made her task more complicated by drawing lines in the sand, making ultimatums and disparaging fellow Democrats — and leaving it to her to figure a way out of the mess.

“There’s nobody better than Speaker Pelosi at getting votes,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.). He is leading a group of centrists who weeks ago convinced Pelosi to pledge to vote on one part of Biden's plan — a $1-trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill — on Monday, a timeline that already slipped to Thursday. “She committed to getting votes and I know she will," Gottheimer said.

The political stakes surrounding the plan, which also includes a second Democrats-only bill to fortify and expand the social safety net by establishing universal pre-K and paid family leave and expanding health programs, could not be higher.

Democrats are facing headwinds in their bid to retain control of Congress in next year’s midterm elections and want to run on popular accomplishments. For Biden, a huge chunk of his agenda is on the line, if not his presidency. If these two bills fail, it bodes poorly for the remainder of this Congress, and even the remainder of his term.

For Pelosi, the bills could serve as her last — and perhaps biggest — legislative accomplishment after her 34 years in Congress and nearly two decades as the leader of House Democrats. In 2018, she committed to stepping down as speaker by the end of next year.

Pelosi had for weeks sided with progressives in agreeing to not vote on the infrastructure bill until the broader social policy bill was ready. On Sunday, she moved away from that position, setting up a Thursday vote on the infrastructure bill even as the social policy bill stalled.

On Monday, Pelosi acknowledged she would decouple the bills and blamed the decision on resistance among some moderate Senate Democrats to the $3.5-trillion spending bill, even though their opposition had been known for weeks. "It all changed, so our approach had to change," she told her members, according to a source familiar with her remarks. “We are not going to pass a bill that won’t pass the Senate.”

Angered over the potential loss of significant leverage if they approve the bipartisan infrastructure bill first, progressives are threatening to block it. Pelosi's much-vaunted whipping skills will be put to the test over the next days as she tries to rescue that key part of the Biden agenda and propel the second part to fruition.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who represents the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Tuesday that there are about 50 progressives who would vote no on the infrastructure bill Thursday, absent a vote on the broader bill. A sketchy framework "is not going to do it for us,” Jayapal said. “No pinkie swears.”

Escalating tensions, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — progressive icon and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee — took to Twitter to support them. "I strongly urge my House colleagues to vote against the bipartisan infrastructure bill until Congress passes a strong reconciliation bill," Sanders wrote, referring to the social spending bill that Democrats plan to pass through a budget reconciliation process.

If Pelosi follows through with her plan to hold the vote Thursday and progressives maintain their posture, it could result in her first loss on a major House vote as speaker.

"Normally she doesn't do that [call a vote she expects to lose], but she may have done the calculation that it has to be done to show the moderates that there aren't the votes," said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough).

In hopes of finding consensus, Pelosi has brought Democrats into the same room twice this week. Although most meetings have been virtual because of the pandemic, she strongly urged members to attend in person. She has also huddled with members in her office just off the Capitol Rotunda, with the pace of those meetings expected to pick up in the coming days.

“She’s trying to get members to get off their positions to negotiate. So she’s kind of creating deadlines for both sides to come to an agreement or to at least say what they can or cannot accept,” said Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles). “As long as you don’t have that kind of pressure, you’re never going to move.”

John Lawrence, former chief of staff to Pelosi, said her legislative superpower, developed over decades of work in Congress, is to discern which of her members’ demands are essential and which are wish lists.

“It’s very similar to the words of the great British political theorist Sir Mick Jagger: figuring out what you want versus what you need,” said Lawrence. “There is nobody in politics better at that than Nancy Pelosi.”

The speaker has faced sizable legislative obstacles before, most notably the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010. Now she is facing an even tougher test, and the increased degree of difficulty speaks volumes about how the Democratic Party has changed over the last decade.

In 2009, Pelosi’s left flank was anchored by senior members who were close personal allies, such as California Reps. George Miller and Henry A. Waxman. It was unfathomable they would block her on the floor.

Now the Democrats’ moderate wing is much diminished and more at risk. Its progressive wing is more rambunctious, and less beholden to the Democratic establishment in general — and Pelosi in particular.

The progressive camp includes several high-profile back benchers who won by unseating longtime incumbents in primaries and are ready to take on establishment leaders such as Pelosi; some of them had openly questioned whether she should continue as speaker.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) said holding one vote without the other is a “betrayal. We will hold the line and vote it down,” she tweeted.

Even veteran progressives are threatening to block the bill without something ironclad from the Senate, including Reps. Ro Khanna of Fremont and Jared Huffman of San Rafael.

The question now is whether progressives are truly willing to block a piece of Biden’s agenda on the floor. For years, progressives have been known to make demands for bold policy, but to ultimately cave in favor of making piecemeal progress.

To appease moderate Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the $3.5-trillion social spending bill will be scaled down. It is unclear yet what programs would be cut. Democrats could decide to eliminate entire programs, keep them all but make them available only to people under certain income levels or make them available for only a few years.

While rank-and-file House Democrats show no sign of losing confidence in Pelosi, there is growing pressure for Biden to get more personally involved, particularly in getting Manchin and Sinema to specify their bottom lines in order to move negotiations along. He met with both of them individually at the White House on Tuesday.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki declined to provide details of those meetings when asked whether Biden was pressing for the two Democratic holdouts to agree to a new price tag. "We're obviously at a very sensitive time in these discussions," she said.

Underscoring the urgency, the White House on Tuesday night canceled Biden's planned trip to Chicago on Wednesday to discuss COVID-19 vaccinations so that he could remain in Washington to work on the bills.

While at his Camp David retreat over the weekend, Biden made calls to members of Congress. Last week, the president brought groups of other Democrats to the White House.

"Should he succeed, he can demonstrate that he is a leader with strength and skill, a president who can get the job done,” said Michael Genovese, president of the Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University. “But should he fail, his popularity will take a hit, his prestige in D.C. will wane, and commentators will read the tea leaves and say that the chances for the Democrats in 2022 and 2024 look dim."

The stakes are even higher for the Democratic Party. Many Democrats believe that their uphill fight to keep control of Congress in 2022 will become nearly impossible if they don’t have these bills — with their far-reaching benefits to families, states and communities — to show the fruits of a Democratic-controlled government.

"Biden has three years to recover and a presidential race always looks much tougher when you have no opponent. But once you have an opponent, presidential races are choices, not a referendum,” said a Democratic strategist familiar with the White House’s thinking. “The problem the Democratic Party has is that midterm elections have become referendums on the party controlling the White House.”

For both Biden and Pelosi, the current legislative conundrum is a test of the old-style leadership skills that are central to their political personas. For now, some House Democrats have taken to calling Pelosi their “magician.” But even they have their limits.

“She is a magician,” Gomez said, “but sometimes there’s too many rabbits and not a big enough hat.”

Times staff writer Chris Megerian in Washington contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.