President Joe Biden visited the Capitol Friday afternoon in an effort to rally feuding Democrats behind his economic agenda and press lawmakers in his party to compromise as they seek to pass both a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a larger “budget reconciliation” package of social and climate programs financed by tax increases on the wealthy and corporations.
The fate of both pieces of legislation has been clouded by differences within the party — and become even more uncertain after House Democrats late Thursday night were forced to push off a planned vote on the infrastructure measure.
Biden, appearing before the House Democratic caucus for the first time, delivered messages targeted at both centrists and progressives. With no deal ready for him to close, he reportedly urged both sides to compromise and capitalize on their chance to deliver on their promises to the American public. He reportedly also warned about the need to avoid handing Republicans a political gift ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
Biden reportedly did not press members to vote for the infrastructure bill, instead telling them that the public works legislation “ain’t going to happen until we reach an agreement on the next piece of legislation” — a message sure to disappoint at least some moderates who had sought to delink the two. “Let’s try to figure out what we are for in reconciliation … and then we can move ahead,” Biden reportedly said, counseling patience.
But Biden also made clear to progressives that the proposed $3.5 trillion cost of the reconciliation bill would need to be scaled back. “Even a smaller bill can make historic investments,” he said.
Biden reportedly told Democrats that they might have to accept something between $1.9 trillion and $2.3 trillion. That came after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) reportedly offered a $2.1 trillion topline in talks with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who has held fast to his view that the price tag for the package should not exceed $1.5 trillion.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, acknowledged Friday that the $3.5 trillion won’t happen. “We’re going to have to come down in our number," she told reporters after the Biden meeting. "We're going to get to work and see what we can do." Jayapal added that she would be staying in town this weekend to keep negotiating a deal.
What it all means: After Thursday’s vote postponement, two competing storylines quickly emerged. The delay, prompted by progressives who are demanding to finalize the larger package before they’ll vote for the infrastructure bill, was an embarrassment and a major setback for Biden’s agenda — a failure that showcased Democrats’ inability to get out of their own way as they seek to prove that government can deliver results for the American people. Or it was a minor blip at worst and perhaps the necessary strategic play to spur warring centrists and progressives to finally break their stalemate and pass bills.
So which was it?
How about both. In truth, we don’t know yet and may not know for a little while as Democrats continue their negotiations.
Clearly, the delay was embarrassing and the drama surrounding the promised vote isn’t what party leaders would have chosen as the ideal path to enacting their plans. The ongoing uncertainty about an infrastructure vote threatens to wipe out a bipartisan victory Biden very much wants at a time when his sagging poll numbers could sorely use a boost. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said a vote would happen on Friday, but she said the same thing on Thursday and Democrats don’t yet appear close to an agreement on the social and climate package.
At the same time, Biden and the White House are pressing for progress on both bills and have not squeezed progressives to support the infrastructure bill, indicating that they may welcome the leverage liberals are providing. And Democrats’ deadlines this week for an infrastructure vote were self-imposed and mostly arbitrary. “It doesn't matter whether it's in six minutes, six days or six weeks,” Biden told reporters as he left Friday’s Democratic caucus meeting. “We're gonna get it done.”
The bottom line: A Friday vote on the infrastructure bill seems impossible, but the clashes in recent days may have done more than any talks over the past two months to clarify what Democrats need to do to reach an agreement on both measures. But reaching a compromise won’t be easy and without a deadline to force dealmaking the drama could still drag out for weeks.