As Infrastructure Bill Inches Forth, a Rocky, Slow Path Awaits in the House
WASHINGTON — As senators grind through votes this week on a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, discontent about the legislation is …
WASHINGTON — As senators grind through votes this week on a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, discontent about the legislation is building among progressive Democrats, signaling a potentially bitter and prolonged intraparty fight to come over the package in the House.
Liberals who have bristled at seeing their top priorities jettisoned from the infrastructure talks as President Biden and Democrats sought an elusive deal with Republicans have warned that they may seek to change the bill substantially when they have the chance. At minimum, House Democrats have made clear that they do not intend to take up the bill until a second, far more expansive package to provide trillions more in spending on health care, education, child care and climate change programs is approved, something not expected until the fall.
The result is that, even as senators carefully navigate their sprawling infrastructure compromise toward final passage that could come within days — pausing every few hours to congratulate themselves for finding bipartisan consensus in a time of deep division — the legislation still faces a rocky and potentially slow path beyond the Senate.
Democrats hold a slim enough majority in the House that even a few defections could sink legislation, and progressives have been open in recent days about their reluctance to support the infrastructure legislation without an ironclad guarantee that the budget package, expected to cost about $3.5 trillion, will become law.
“The Progressive Caucus has had moral clarity, and a clarion call for three months, that we need to deliver the entirety of these two packages together, so that’s going to continue to be our approach,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the chairwoman of the group. “While there may be a couple of senators that are saying that they’re going to vote ‘no’ if certain things don’t happen, that is also true of any number of members in the House.”
In order to deliver on Mr. Biden’s $4 trillion economic agenda, Democratic leaders have remained adamant that they will approve two expansive bills this year, beginning with Senate passage of the $1 trillion bipartisan compromise, which would pour $550 billion in new federal funds into the nation’s aging roads, bridges and highways, and into climate resiliency and broadband expansion programs.
The remainder of Mr. Biden’s plans to address climate change, expand health care and provide free education will be stuffed into a budget package that Democrats plan to pass using a maneuver known as reconciliation. That process allows them to bypass a filibuster, meaning that if all 50 of their senators supported the bill, it could be approved over unified Republican opposition.
Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, has said he plans to bring up a budget blueprint that would pave the way for that bill as soon as the infrastructure bill passes — and will not allow senators to leave Washington for their summer break, scheduled to begin on Friday, until both are done.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California has repeatedly said that the House will not take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the Senate passes the reconciliation package, which will take weeks to hammer out in order to clear an evenly divided Senate. But some moderate Democrats want to vote on it immediately, sending it quickly to Mr. Biden for his signature.
“We should bring this once-in-a-century bipartisan legislation to the floor for a stand-alone vote as quickly as possible,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey and a leader of the centrist Problem Solvers Caucus.
Republicans have moved quickly to try to exploit the divisions among Democrats. While more than a dozen Republicans are expected to support the final bipartisan infrastructure bill, they have branded the budget package as a “reckless tax-and-spending spree” that will drive up inflation. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, led a half-dozen Republicans on Wednesday in a barrage of criticism for what he described as “the absolute worst possible thing we could be doing to our country.”
Some centrist Democrats, too, have expressed concern about the size of the $3.5 trillion plan being championed by progressives. Most notably, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has said she will not support a reconciliation bill of that size, which would doom the measure in the Senate, where Democrats need every member aligned with them to vote yes. (She has agreed to advance a budget blueprint, a crucial step for the process.)
That infuriated liberal Democrats who are primed to wield their influence on the pair of economic bills. They have been emboldened in recent days by a successful campaign led by one of their own, Representative Cori Bush of Missouri, to pressure Mr. Biden into extending an eviction moratorium for renters affected by the pandemic.
“Today is important because it marks, I hope, a turning point in the way that this White House views progressives,” Representative Mondaire Jones, Democrat of New York, said at a news conference after the moratorium extension was announced. “We are prepared to leverage our energy and our activism in close coordination with grass-roots activists and people all across this country.”
The House set its own marker for infrastructure legislation in early July with the nearly party-line passage of a five-year, $715 billion transportation and drinking water bill. But the White House instead focused on talks with a bipartisan group of senators aimed at finding a compromise that could win enough Republican support to draw 60 votes in the Senate and overcome a filibuster. As part of the resulting deal, Mr. Biden made a number of concessions, accepting less funding for clean energy projects, lead pipe replacement and transit, among other areas.
The situation has rankled Representative Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Mr. DeFazio spent months shepherding the House infrastructure bill, which includes more substantial climate policy and more than 1,400 home-district projects, known as earmarks, from lawmakers in both parties.
“The bill in the Senate was written behind closed doors, and you know, that’s probably not going to be the best product,” Mr. DeFazio said on CNN on Monday. “Most of the people who wrote the bill are not senior people on the committees of jurisdiction who know a lot about transportation, or perhaps a number of them are resistant to the idea that we should deal with climate change.”
Pressed on whether he would ultimately block passage of the final product, Mr. DeFazio conceded that the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package “could fix a lot of the problems in this bill.”
“I’ve had that conversation with the White House — that’s possible,” he said. “So if we see major changes and things that are mitigated by the reconciliation bill, OK, then maybe we could move this.”
White House officials said they have remained in touch with House Democrats’ tensions. Mr. Biden has dispatched cabinet officials to meet with several of them, including Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, who traveled to Oregon to laud Mr. DeFazio’s work on infrastructure.
“We’re in close touch with the president’s colleagues in the House, who he deeply respects and values as core partners in delivering on generational infrastructure progress,” said Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman. In recent days, the White House has pointedly shared polls and articles that show widespread support for the bipartisan plan and highlight substantial funding for climate resilience.
Senate Democrats, for their part, have vowed to remain united as they trudge through a marathon of votes to finish both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the budget blueprint before leaving Washington for their August recess.
“We’re moving together as Democrats,” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts told reporters this week. “No one’s going to get everything they want. But no one’s going to get shut out, either.”
Lisa Friedman contributed reporting.