Biden Says Democrats Should Delay Infrastructure Vote Until Deal Reached

Biden Says Democrats Should Delay Infrastructure Vote Until Deal Reached

20:21 - Party seeks agreement between moderate, progressive wings on separate social-policy and climate package

President Biden called on House Democrats to hold off on voting on a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure bill until after they reach an agreement on a separate social-policy and climate bill, moving to again delay final passage of a central piece of his own agenda in a bid to unify restive Democrats.

Even as Mr. Biden endorsed progressives’ push to hold up a vote on the infrastructure bill, however, he acknowledged in a closed-door meeting with House Democrats on Friday that the price tag of the social-policy and climate bill would need to drop substantially below $3.5 trillion to closer to roughly $2 trillion, according to lawmakers and aides.

The infrastructure bill “ain’t going to happen until we reach an agreement on the next piece of legislation,” Mr. Biden told House Democrats, according to a person familiar with his remarks. Exiting the meeting, Mr. Biden told reporters: “It doesn’t matter whether it’s in six minutes, six days or six weeks. We’re going to get it done.”

House leaders said they expected that the chamber would take up a short-term extension of existing transportation programs, instead of the infrastructure bill, on Friday evening.

The presidential visit to Capitol Hill appeared to defuse, at least temporarily, a standoff between the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party, who have feuded for weeks over Mr. Biden’s agenda.

Progressives have threatened to block the infrastructure bill if it comes to the floor before Democrats have unified around a broader social-policy bill that includes initiatives on education, healthcare and climate. Centrists in turn have demanded a vote on infrastructure and raised concerns about the price of the social-policy and climate bill, including about its proposed tax increases.

“I think he sent two practical realities: one is that we have to get to an agreement on reconciliation and it’s not going to be $3.5 [trillion] and two, that that’s going to be necessary to get an infrastructure bill across the finish line,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer (D., Wash.).

The fraught intraparty negotiations are a reflection of the narrow majorities Democrats hold in Congress. Democrats can’t afford a single defection in the 50-50 Senate, and they can no lose no more than three votes in the House.

They are pursuing a process called reconciliation to approve the social-policy and climate bill without GOP support in the Senate, where legislation would otherwise require 60 votes to advance. Republicans have called the social-policy proposal wasteful and potentially damaging to the economy.

Democrats initially had set the social-policy and climate bill at $3.5 trillion, though Mr. Biden told House Democrats that negotiations with centrists would likely bring its cost in the range of roughly $2 trillion, according to lawmakers and aides. Lawmakers said Mr. Biden mentioned possible toplines from the bill ranging from $1.9 trillion to $2.3 trillion.

“Even a smaller bill can make historic investments,” Mr. Biden told House Democrats, according to two people familiar with his remarks.

“He said what we all know is true, that $3.5 [trillion] has to come down,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D., Vt.) “I was glad to hear him say this—that we can make progress with a lower number.”

Top Democrats and Mr. Biden spent much of the week working to resolve the impasse. They held a series of meetings with centrist Democrats including Sens. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.), working to iron out a new framework for the social-policy and climate bill. As this talks continued, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) twice delayed the vote on the infrastructure bill this week.

Mrs. Pelosi had targeted this week for a vote on the infrastructure bill as part of a previous agreement with centrist Democrats. Some of those centrists seemed resigned Friday evening to delaying it again, given Mr. Biden’s stance.

“I wish we would have heard something else, but the president said that we got to get both of them done,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D., Texas). “If we get it done it’ll be a victory. The question is when do we get that victory.”

While Mr. Biden effectively bought Democrats more time to resolve their differences with his remarks Friday, the party will still need to make difficult decisions about how to slim down its $3.5 trillion package before the infrastructure bill can go forward.

House Democrats have crafted a package that would expand Medicare to cover dental, vision, and hearing care; offer universal prekindergarten; provide two free years of community college; and create a program encouraging utilities to reduce carbon emissions over time, among many other programs.

Mr. Manchin has said he could support $1.5 trillion on the social-policy and climate bill, while Ms. Sinema hasn’t publicly declared what she would support. She was in Phoenix on Friday for a medical appointment and continued negotiations remotely, according to a spokesman.

Lawmakers said Mr. Biden told them that he had spent “tens of hours” talking with Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema and that he was pushing them to identify which programs they could back.

“He just basically has said that’s what he has kept saying to them, ‘Tell me what you’re for—don’t talk about a number, tell me what policies you’re for,’ ” House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D., Ky.) said.

The failure to pass the infrastructure bill before midnight led to a lapse in authorization for the nation’s transportation programs, putting roughly 3,700 federal employees temporarily on furlough, according to a Transportation Department spokeswoman. Lawmakers have discussed a short-term patch to continue to reauthorize the transportation programs.

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