By Alan Fram | Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Top Democrats abruptly postponed an expected House vote Friday on their 10-year, $1.85 trillion social and environment measure, as leaders’ long struggle to balance demands from progressives and moderates once again dogged the pillar of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda.
In a bid to hand him a needed victory, leaders still prepared to try pushing an accompanying $1 trillion package of road and other infrastructure projects through the chamber and to his desk.
But even that popular bill’s fate was in doubt. Progressives threatened to vote against it, continuing their demand that the two measures be voted on together to pressure moderates to support the larger, more expansive social measure. It seemed possible that Democrats might delay the infrastructure vote as well to avoid an embarrassing defeat.
The scrambled plans cast a fresh pall over a party that’s tried for weeks to find middle ground on its massive package of health, education, family and climate change initiatives. That’s been hard, in part because Democrats’ slender majorities mean they need the support of every Senate Democrat and can have no more than three defectors in the House.
Democratic leaders had hoped to see the House approve both measures Friday, producing twin triumphs for a president and party eager to rebound from this week’s deflating off-year elections and show they can govern.
But those plans were dashed when, after hours of talks, a half-dozen moderates insisted they would vote against the sprawling social and climate bill unless the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office first provided its cost estimate for the measure.
Democratic leaders have said that would take days or more. With Friday’s delay and lawmakers’ plans to leave town for a week’s break, that could mean the budget estimates would be ready by the time a vote is held.
“In order to make progress on the president’s vision, it is important that we advance the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework and the Build Back Better Act today,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, wrote to her colleagues, using the White House names for the two measures. She added, “The agenda that we are advancing is transformative and historic, hence challenging.”
The infrastructure measure cleared the Senate easily in August with bipartisan support, including the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The package would provide huge sums for every state for highway, rail, mass transit, broadband, airport, drinking and waste water, power grids, ports and other projects.
But that bill became a pawn in the long struggle for leverage between Democrats’ progressives and moderates. Progressives said they’d back the infrastructure legislation only if the two measures were voted on together.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who leads the 95-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, revived that timing link Friday, saying the White House and Congress’ nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation had provided all the fiscal information lawmakers needed for the broad bill.
“If our six colleagues still want to wait for a CBO score, we would agree to give them that time — after which point we can vote on both bills together,” she wrote. That strongly suggested that at least some progressives would vote Friday against the infrastructure bill.
That would sink the infrastructure measure unless enough Republicans backed so that it passed anyway, which seemed unlikely. That could mean Pelosi, who’s long refused to have votes on any bills unless she knows Democrats will win, would choose that path again and decide against allowing an infrastructure vote until both bills are ready to go.
Earlier Friday, Biden, meeting reporters to tout a strong monthly jobs report, said he was returning to the Oval Office “to make some calls” to lawmakers. He said he would ask them to “vote yes on both these bills right now.”
Democrats are eager to quickly notch accomplishments days after a gubernatorial election defeat in Virginia and disappointing contests elsewhere.
House passage of Biden’s larger measure would send it to the Senate, where it would face certain changes and more Democratic drama. That’s chiefly because of demands by Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to contain the measure’s costs and curb or drop some of its initiatives.
But House approval of the smaller, bipartisan infrastructure measure would send it directly to the White House, where Biden would be certain to take a victory lap. That bill is projected to create mountains of jobs.
Pelosi met late Thursday with Latino lawmakers wanting the larger measure to go as far as possible in helping immigrants remain in the U.S. Their prospects for bold action are limited by strict Senate rules, though. Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., said Friday that they’d discussed moving on the issue in other bills and considered Pelosi an ally.
Pelosi’s strategy seemed focused on passing the most robust social and climate bill possible in her chamber and then leaving it to he Senate to adjust or strip out the portions its members won’t agree to. In late tweaks to the bill to nail down votes, the House Rules Committee approved revisions to a state-and-local tax deduction and other issues.
Half the size of Biden’s initial $3.5 trillion package, the bill exceeds 2,100 pages and has support progressive lawmakers, even though it is smaller than they wanted.
Republicans oppose the measure as too expensive and damaging to the economy.
The package would provide large numbers of Americans with assistance to pay for health care, raising children and caring for elderly people at home. There would be lower prescription drug costs as Medicare for the first time would be able to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices for some drugs, a long-sought Democratic priority.
The package would provide some $555 billion in tax breaks encouraging cleaner energy and electric vehicles. Democrats added key provisions in recent days, restoring a new paid family leave program and work permits for immigrants.
Much of the package’s cost would be covered with higher taxes on wealthier Americans and large corporations.
Manchin has panned the new family leave program, which is expected to provide four weeks of paid time off, less than the 12 weeks once envisioned.
Senators are also likely to strip out a just-added immigration provision that would let 7 million immigrants in the country without legal standing apply for up to two five-year work permits.
Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro, Farnoush Amiri, Kevin Freking, Aamer Madhani, Mary Clare Jalonick and Brian Slodysko contributed to this report.
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