Fractious Dems struggle to unite around $1.75T megabill

“There are too many no votes” in the progressive camp, Jayapal told reporters Thursday afternoon, to pass the infrastructure bill on Thursday.

Jayapal spoke after Biden made a direct plea for his party’s support. “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week,” Biden told Democrats, according to a source in the room.

Pelosi told caucus members she wants to vote Thursday on the Senate-passed infrastructure bill, kickstarting a formal leadership whip effort for that measure with answers expected by noon. She later visited a progressive caucus meeting on the bill, taking no questions as she entered or left. Biden sandwiched the Hill visit and follow-up White House remarks into a packed schedule that includes departing for a major foreign trip.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) summarized Biden’s private remarks in a quip: “Translation: I’m going to Rome. I want to get off that plane, and disprove Putin and Xi, who say democracies can’t get anything done. I’d like to have something at hand to disprove that. Translation, pass the infrastructure bill.”

Top Democrats, including Pelosi, had hoped the president’s trip would be triumphant after they clinched an agreement on a roughly $1.75 trillion social spending bill with moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). Sinema indicated she’s warm on the potential deal, saying in a statement that “I look forward to getting this done.”

“We’re very excited about it. We’re going to send him off to his meetings with strength,” Pelosi said of Biden’s visit as she entered the Capitol. Asked whether progressives were on board, she said, “You’ll have to ask them.”

The Biden huddle was a bit of déjà vu. In many ways Democrats are reliving the nightmarish week in late September when liberal objections forced House leadership to scuttle a vote on the Senate-passed infrastructure bill, enraging the party’s centrists. Biden yielded to progressives’ demands during a visit to the Hill four weeks ago, rather than leaning on his left flank to support the bipartisan bill.

Before the president reached the Capitol, the White House outlined its parameters for a deal, rolling out a stripped-down top line of $1.75 trillion that includes investments in home care, education and immigration.

The most expensive items in Biden’s proposal are clean energy and climate investments at $555 billion, two years of free pre-school for 3- and 4-year-olds at $400 billion and $200 billion on tax credits for one year of the Child Tax Credit. The biggest items left out are paid family leave and prescription drug reform. On the latter, a senior administration official made clear there are “not yet enough votes” for it.

Yet Sinema had struck an agreement on prescription drug reform, pursuing a more limited approach than most Democrats support. It’s unclear whether that agreement can be added later to the framework.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Thursday called the White House-approved framework the “most consequential bill since the 1960s” but warned that it has “major gaps in it.” He said he wants to see “explicit legislative language” before any House vote on infrastructure.

“I’m going to do my best to take a good bill and make it stronger,” Sanders said. He and other Senate Democratic caucus members are set for a Zoom meeting with White House officials on Thursday afternoon.

Senior administration officials wouldn’t comment about whether or not every senator had agreed to the framework, despite the positive response from Sinema.

“We are not going to speak for any lawmaker here,” one official said. “Our bottom line is, we are confident that this will earn the support of every Democratic senator and pass the House.”

Still, Democratic leaders including Biden, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are hoping to coax progressives to support the $550 billion infrastructure bill that cleared the upper chamber nearly three months ago.

Sanders’ backing will be key to unlocking progressive votes in the House, where Pelosi can only lose three Democrats on any piece of legislation. Senior Democrats hope if the upper chamber’s liberal leader signs onto the plan, his House allies will feel comfortable enough to relent on the infrastructure bill.

But even with a strong push from Biden, it will take some wrangling. One Democratic source close to progressive lawmakers said Thursday that they are concerned Sinema and Manchin still have not yet committed to voting yes.

“This is exactly why we need legislative text and all parties fully agreed to that bill text,” the source said, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity.

Even a senior House committee leader, Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), wouldn’t say if he supports an infrastructure vote as he left a Thursday midday meeting of progressives.

Manchin, when asked where he stood, didn’t offer a clear endorsement of the White House-approved framework. He told reporters that “this is all in the hands of the House right now” and added that he’s operated “in good faith.”

A group of roughly 10 to 15 Democrats also say they’ll be satisfied with nothing less than a full House vote on the social policy bill before allowing the infrastructure measure to proceed, according to multiple sources close to the discussions.

Still, senior Democrats are skeptical that dozens of progressives would be willing to block one of Biden’s biggest priorities at a time when he badly needs a win. Anxiety has risen across the party as Biden’s priorities languish in Congress, particularly before a pair of global summits and two key gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey next week.

Even so, liberal backlash is a problem for House Democratic leaders as they try to tee up an infrastructure vote. If the group of roughly 15 liberals does hold out, Democrats would need to make up those defections with GOP votes that are less reliable.

Multiple House Republicans who support the bipartisan infrastructure bill estimate that they are now hovering around 10 GOP votes for the Senate-approved infrastructure legislation.

Sources say Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), co-chairs of the Problem Solvers Caucus, are again working behind the scenes to get more Republican supporters for the infrastructure bill after initially pausing informal whip efforts while Democrats’ negotiations stalled.

Jayapal and her allies say at least 30 members of the group are refusing to advance infrastructure unless the broader spending deal moves in tow. After Biden’s appearance, she described the choice before progressives as “a bit of a leap of faith in the president.”

“The speaker knows how to count votes,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). “I don’t think she’s going to bring it for a vote until she knows she can win it, and she has Pramila and a few others clearly on board.”

And they’re getting support from Senate liberal allies.

“A framework is part of getting to a final bill, but I’m not OK with the infrastructure bill being passed out of the House until we actually have a bill in the Senate,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

Burgess Everett, Marianne LeVine and Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.

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