Highway to Nowhere: Pelosi Delays Vote Amid Dem Chaos

Leah Millis/Reuters
Leah Millis/Reuters

With internal tensions near a breaking point, House Democrats backed down from a promised Thursday vote to advance a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill after it became clear it was going to crash and burn.

Hours before, at a press conference on Thursday morning, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) publicly expressed confidence that the legislation would succeed. “So far, so good for today,” she said. And supporters of the legislation echoed her, repeatedly projecting victory by the end of the day.

But it turned out the more prescient assessment came from Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD). When asked if he felt confident Democrats had enough support to pass the bill, he replied: “Nope.”

Despite a marathon day of negotiating and backchanneling, Pelosi never called the vote. In a letter to members sent at nine o’clock at night, the Speaker deemed it a “day of progress” and said that “discussions continue.” A subsequent notice from Hoyer’s office said the House would “complete consideration” of the bill on Friday.

The outcome is a victory for progressives, whose promises to block the infrastructure bill forced Pelosi to delay the vote. While they’d like to see that legislation pass, dozens of members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus held it up due to a lack of progress on the other plank of Democrats’ agenda—a much broader social policy package that contains many of their long-desired goals, like expanding Medicaid benefits and tackling climate change.

Not only is that legislation—dubbed the Build Back Better Act—not ready, centrists like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) have balked at the $3.5 trillion price tag, the finer points of tax raises and health-care policy and, sometimes, the rationale behind the legislation altogether.

Discussions between Democratic leadership, the White House, and Manchin went late Thursday, but the West Virginia senator all but put the promise of an immediate vote on ice when he said he remains unconvinced to support a bill larger than $1.5 trillion.

Progressives Come to Their Put-Up or Shut-Up Moment

Against that backdrop, progressives didn’t see any point in relinquishing an infrastructure bill they saw as their main leverage. Leaving a meeting with Pelosi on Thursday afternoon, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), a Progressive Caucus member, told reporters that “it has been understood that you need a high level of certainty that we get the things we need to have in the Build Back Better Act, and it is hard to imagine that coming together today.”

The caucus’ chair, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), had said for days that the vote would fail, and lawmakers associated with the group told The Daily Beast that as many as 50 were prepared to oppose it on the floor. Another lawmaker familiar with the whip count said the same thing. And with just a four-seat cushion in the House—and little GOP help expected—even a few defections could have doomed the bill.

Pelosi’s delay is a clear defeat for moderate Democrats, who used their own leverage to force a vote on the bipartisan deal by the end of September. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), the de facto leader of that bloc, predicted he’d be sipping champagne by Thursday night.

On Thursday afternoon, Gottheimer wasn’t even willing to entertain the idea that Pelosi would delay the vote. Asked by The Daily Beast what it would signify if the Speaker delayed the vote, Gottheimer said on Thursday afternoon it’d “signify nothing. It’s gonna happen.” Later, he went as far to declare on CNN that he was “1,000 percent” sure the vote would happen that night.

But Gottheimer’s attempt at manifesting the outcome through positive thinking was unsuccessful, and as the hours ticked away the inevitable happened.

It’s unclear how the delay will ultimately affect the passage of President Joe Biden’s agenda. While the vote didn’t happen Thursday, moderates seem to be holding out hope that the dynamic will change over the coming days and weeks. However, it’s now clear that moderates won’t be able to just jam progressives by passing the infrastructure bill and leaving the broader bill in a filing cabinet.

While Pelosi was meeting with Jayapal and other progressive lawmakers, Gottheimer and other moderates were in another room within the Speaker’s chambers while Pelosi shuttled between the two groups in what one lawmaker involved in the meetings described as high-stakes “speed dating.”

This lawmaker, who was in the meeting with progressives, felt Pelosi wasn’t actually trying to whip them to vote for the infrastructure bill. Instead, there seemed to be some posturing—potentially for the benefit of moderates who have wanted to feel that leadership was trying to win progressive votes.

Broadly, trust between factions of the party is at an abysmal low, and many lawmakers fear that delaying the vote would further poison the well—and make it that much harder to keep the party’s disparate and delicate majorities together long enough to pass major legislation.

Many Democrats believe that progressive opposition will evaporate once all parties involved—the White House, Pelosi, Manchin and Sinema—agree on a foundation for the Build Back Better Act. That would likely include a topline price tag, and commitments to advance various specific components and ways to pay for the bill.

“What can we pencil?” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), by way of framing the challenge on Thursday afternoon. “That would be a top line, and apportionment of that top line among the three major buckets.” Most Democrats see those buckets as health care, family benefits, and climate change.

The lawmaker involved in meetings with Pelosi on Thursday said they felt the particularly light touch from the Speaker signaled that she privately supported their gambit to keep the two bills linked together—or at least didn’t oppose it. If a top line agreement comes together, however, there’s a sense in the caucus that Pelosi will move quickly to get skeptics in line in order to pass the bill.

But moderates had been convinced that failure on Thursday would prompt Manchin and Sinema to give up on talks. The flurry of White House meetings and backchanneling on Capitol Hill was a sign, to them, that progress was being made, and the duo were close to agreeing to a top line.

Almost immediately after the House shut down for the night, Democrats facing tough 2022 elections began blasting the delay of what they believe is a clear policy win. "When Iowans tell me they are sick of Washington games, this is what they mean," said Rep. Cindy Axne (D-IA). "All-at-once or nothing is no way to govern."

Other Democrats, and not just progressives, were less swayed by these points. They admit that the delay is not ideal, but feel that more time means that Democratic leaders, the White House, and key holdouts can keep talking. And many Democrats believe that enough of their colleagues understand that failure is not an option and a return to the negotiating table would be a necessity.

In the weeks leading up to the thwarted vote—the first of several that will make or break Biden’s domestic agenda—the White House privately reminded reporters that with a caucus as ideologically diverse as the Democrats, any major legislation was going to look doomed until the moment that it wasn’t.

Administration officials pointed to the leadup of the Affordable Care Act under President Barack Obama, when progressives appeared poised to thwart the president’s signature domestic policy issue, only to eventually back it.

That legislation was passed, former staffers noted, in no small part because of Biden’s ability to persuade his former colleagues in the Senate to compromise—and fall in line.

“He, better than anyone else, has the ability and the relationships to actually get it done,” one former staffer in Biden’s Senate office said confidently. “It is those that he served with for 40 years in the U.S. Senate, it is those that he established relationships with while vice president… who are shaping this bill, and those relationships are important.”

But Biden, who has long put his faith in the art of compromise, has been increasingly stymied by a Senate that no longer functions as it did when he last served in the chamber a dozen years ago.

Nearly every major domestic policy proposal of his campaign—from immigration reform to anti-discrimination legislation to gun control—has been functionally tanked by the filibuster, and a block on nominees by two Republican senators for key roles in the State and Defense departments has left entire sections of the executive branch in limbo.

“The Senate has changed,” admitted another former Senate staffer in Biden’s office, who blamed Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Republican minority leader, for the obstructionism—but noted that the Democratic inability to “herd cats” within the president’s own caucus is ultimately what poses the biggest threat to the bipartisan infrastructure deal and the reconciliation package.

“The president is the leader of the party, and if the leader of the party needs to shake some people by the shoulders to get them in line, then that should have happened before his entire agenda was threatened,” they continued.

In a late-night statement on Thursday, the White House insisted that “a great deal of progress” had been made in the week leading up to the pulled vote—and promised that despite Democrats being divided by “some differences,” additional time would lead to a comprehensive deal.

“A great deal of progress has been made this week, and we are closer to an agreement than ever,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “But we are not there yet, and so, we will need some additional time to finish the work, starting tomorrow morning first thing.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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