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Top One Magazine

‘Whole day was a clusterf—‘: Dems battle distrust in struggle to pass infrastructure

House Democrats were on the cusp of a deal to advance the party’s domestic agenda late Friday, breaking the logjam on an infrastructure bill that has languished for months and moving ahead on their $1.75 trillion social spending package.

In the end, a statement from moderates vowing to back the social spending plan later this month, pending a positive cost analysis, finally broke the fever.

“The whole day was a clusterfuck, right?” said senior progressive Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.). “At the end of the day, what we all want to do is get the president’s agenda done, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The agreement is a victory for Democratic leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who reasserted control over her fractious caucus after months of infighting — and President Joe Biden, who has struggled since September to corral votes for the two key planks of his agenda.

The House was expected to vote late Friday on the $550 billion infrastructure bill, sending the legislation to Biden’s desk more than three months after it passed the Senate. In addition, Democrats would take a procedural vote to advance — but not pass — the social and climate spending package. However, the chamber went into recess late Friday night as leaders continued to hammer out the final agreement.

That detente capped a dizzying day in the chamber that started with Pelosi’s team hopeful of passing both bills and nearly ended in disaster as centrists and liberals dug in against each other.

Democratic leaders worked into the night Friday to bridge the divide between recalcitrant moderates who refused to back Biden’s social spending package and progressives who didn’t want to support the infrastructure bill without further assurance from the centrist wing.

Biden also pitched in, making direct and specific pleas to House Democrats to support Pelosi’s plan on the floor, something he hadn’t done in past efforts to rally votes for his priorities.

“I am urging all members to vote for both the rule for consideration of the Build Back Better Act and final passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill tonight,” Biden said in a statement following a series of phone calls Democratic holdouts.

Democrats’ Friday night dash to try to push the infrastructure bill over the finish line — more than three months after the bipartisan legislation passed the Senate — capped off a dizzying day for the party. Pelosi and her lieutenants, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, kicked off the day confident they would have enough votes within the fractious caucus to both clear the infrastructure bill and send the much larger social and climate package to the Senate.

The effort, if successful, would’ve been a remarkable feat for Democratic leaders after months of public infighting between the party’s centrists and liberals threatened to derail — and then thwart — Biden’s domestic agenda.

The months of tumult have not been without significant cost – from Biden’s plunging poll numbers to an election night thrashing this week that saw Republicans triumph in deep-blue areas, foreshadowing a potentially disastrous midterm for the party next year.

But instead of coming together after their ballot box bruising this week, Democrats are set to again delay a vote on their $1.75 trillion party-line measure and turn their sights to just the $550 billion Senate-passed infrastructure bill — bending to the demands of their most vocal centrists in a last-ditch attempt to deliver at least one legislative win for Biden.

Democrats still planned to advance their broader $1.75 trillion climate and social safety net bill, set for passage without GOP votes, but it would only be a procedural move. And that’s not enough for many progressives.

The convoluted maneuver, first suggested by senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus, quickly became a problem for Democratic leaders. While they initially believed the move could cost them some liberal votes for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, they believed they could make up most of those from the GOP side of the aisle.

CBC Chairwoman Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) summed up the strategy: “Jim Clyburn came to me this morning and we sat down and we thought an initial dialogue might be good. To say, let’s vote on the rule to Build Back Better. At least you’re putting it out there …It’s a start. Is it the best solution ? I don’t know.”

“I think it was the starting point,” Beatty added. “I really didn’t think about what would happen along the way.”

Pelosi quickly pivoted to the new strategy, which she announced to the caucus in a Friday afternoon letter. But no sooner did she do that than a panoply of progressives dug in and refused to go along, trapping Democratic leaders in a game of factional Whack-a-Mole.

“I’m a no,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). When asked if she’d change her own stance against separating the two bills on the floor, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) replied “absolutely not.”

It remains unclear how many progressives ultimately back the infrastructure bill during a Friday night floor vote. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said that “I’m open to all possibilities and I’m open to giving the leadership a hearing.” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) signaled he’d support the bipartisan plan, but only if both bills passed on the same day.

Pelosi herself predicted a “large number of members of the progressive caucus” who are prepared to vote yes on infrastructure Friday night.

Members on Pelosi’s left flank have insisted for months that the social spending bill move together with the infrastructure proposal, and liberal opposition, helped scuttle previous attempts to move the infrastructure bill forward over the last two months.

It’s unlikely enough Republicans would be able to make up the difference if the expected number of progressives defect during a planned floor vote on the infrastructure package. Past GOP whip counts had Republican yes votes hovering around 10 for the Senate-passed measure, though some have privately warned the numbers could change if Democrats kept delaying the vote.

Democrats are still in talks about exactly when they would vote on passage of the social spending bill, although Pelosi and other top Democrats vowed to do so before Thanksgiving if possible. Nonetheless, an official budgetary analysis on potential costs may not come until Thanksgiving week.

Many in the caucus were baffled by the moderates’ resistance to pass the massive social spending bill. They argued it wasn’t the final version anyway, since the Senate was all but sure to make changes.

But for most centrist holdouts, that was exactly the problem: Democrats such as Murphy and Reps. Jared Golden (D-Maine) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) have been beating the drum for weeks that they won’t vote for any legislation that can’t pass the Senate.

Doing so, they warned, would amount to a politically toxic vote on a sprawling bill packed with new spending and tax changes, only to see it be shredded by Senate centrists or be plucked from the bill by the chamber’s budget rulekeeper.

Nancy Vu contributed to this report.

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