With his economic agenda and very possibly his presidential legacy — hanging in the balance, President Joe Biden on Wednesday jumped into the middle of the fray between progressives and moderates in his party, hoping to quell disputes that threaten to derail both a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a larger package of social spending and tax increases.
Biden hosted a series of meetings Wednesday with Democrats, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to key members of the moderate and liberal factions clashing over major elements of his agenda.
The centrist Democrats meeting with Biden included Sens. Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) as well as Reps. Josh Gottheimer (NJ), leader of the Problem Solvers Caucus, Suzan DelBene (WA), leader of the New Democrat Coalition and Stephanie Murphy (FL), leader of the Blue Dog Coalition. Biden was then scheduled to meet in the evening with liberals including a handful of senators and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (WA), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
The meetings come as the House is set to vote next week on the Senate-passed infrastructure bill.
Pelosi had committed to hold a vote on the infrastructure bill by September 27 in order to resolve an earlier revolt by a group of moderates, who threatened to oppose the budget resolution paving the way for the social welfare package. With that date rapidly approaching, though, it’s not clear that Democrats will have the votes they need.
"We're calm and everybody's good and our work's almost done," Pelosi told reporters after her White House meeting. Schumer was similarly effusive. “We made some good progress,” he said. Move along, nothing to see here.
Progressives playing hardball: Leadership’s assurances aside, progressives are still threatening to vote against the infrastructure bill as they seek leverage to ensure adoption of the larger package — still far from being finished — that contains their priorities on health care, education and climate change. Democrats can only afford to lose three votes, and Jayapal told reporters late Tuesday that perhaps half of her 95-member caucus is willing to vote against the infrastructure bill. And Rep. Mark Pocan (WI), another progressive set to meet with Biden Wednesday evening, told CNN that 50 Democrats would oppose the bill. “At the end of the day, if we don’t have the reconciliation bill done, the infrastructure bill will not pass,” Jayapal said.
House Republican leaders, meanwhile, are urging their members to vote against the infrastructure bill, putting more pressure on Democrats — and, Bloomberg’s Erik Wasson suggests, raising the odds that Pelosi will have to postpone the infrastructure vote.
But as Democratic leaders look to unite their caucus and avoid an embarrassing defeat or retreat, Pelosi may be more likely to press progressives to fall in line. She already signaled in a letter to colleagues earlier this week that the cost of the proposed $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package may need to be trimmed in order to pass the Senate.
“There will not be a positive reaction to help coalesce our caucus if the infrastructure bill goes down,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said Tuesday. “I don’t agree with the judgment of those who think that somehow it will compel the moderate wing of the caucus to be more supportive. I think the moderate wing is supportive.”
Progressives aren’t inclined to give in this time. “Try us,” Jayapal told The Washington Post after a two-hour meeting with Pelosi late Tuesday.
Eleven Senate Democrats voiced their support for the progressive position in a joint statement Wednesday: “The House of Representatives should wait to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the budget reconciliation bill, which enacts the rest of the President’s Build Back Better agenda, is sent to the President’s desk.”
The bottom line: It's not clear if Biden can wrangle House progressives. “The president ran on his four decades of experience in the Senate and ability to work with Congress to get stuff done,” Politico’s Playbook noted Wednesday. “But there are real questions about his sway in the House, where he is not as well-known.” We'll know more after his meeting tonight.