President meets Democrats for talks and insists ‘it doesn’t matter whether it’s six minutes or six weeks – we’re going to get it done’
Democrats returned to the Capitol on Friday deeply divided but determined to make progress on Joe Biden’s ambitious economic vision, after an embarrassing setback delayed a planned vote on a related $1tn measure to improve the nation’s infrastructure.
Biden on Friday made a rare visit to Capitol Hill to meet privately with House Democrats amid a stalemate that has put his sprawling domestic agenda in jeopardy. The visit comes after after the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, delayed a vote on part of his economic agenda, a bipartisan $1tn public works measure, on Thursday night after a frantic day of negotiations failed to produce a deal.
“We’re going to get this thing done,” Biden said, as he exited the caucus room. “It doesn’t matter when – it doesn’t matter whether it’s in six minutes, six days, or six weeks – we’re going to get it done.”
Earlier in the day, Pelosi promised that there would be a “vote today” on the measure, an ambitious timeline that would require Democrats first reaching a compromise on the broader piece of Biden’s agenda that virtually every member of the party in both the House and Senate could support. But a resolution before the weekend appeared unlikely as Democrats remained deeply at odds over the scale and structure of a more expansive package containing containing a host of progressive priorities, provisions to expand health care access, establish paid leave, combat climate change and reduce poverty – all underwritten by tax increases on wealthy Americans and corporations.
Democrats are trying to score a major legislative victory with razor-thin majorities in both chambers. Failure would deny Biden much of his domestic agenda, leaving the party with little to show for their time controlling the White House, the Senate and House – a governing trifecta they last enjoyed in 2010.
Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has proposed a spending package of about $1.5tn – less than half the size of the proposal put forward by the president and Democratic leaders. Another Democratic centrist, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, declined to say whether she agreed with Manchin’s proposal.
The wrangling resumed in the House on Friday morning, which, due to a quirk of process, remainedin the legislative day of 30 September even as the calendar turned to October.
Huddled together in an hours-long caucus meeting, Pelosi tried to steer the feuding factions within her party toward common ground after Thursday’s marathon negotiating session generated deepening acrimony and no deal.
Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, emerged from the morning gathering optimistic that Democrats would eventually pass both bills. But she remained firm in her position – and confident in her members – that there the infrastructure bill would not move forward without assurances that the Senate would pass Biden’s larger bill.
“We’ve seen more progress in the last 48 hours than we’ve seen in a long time on reconciliation,” she said, crediting progressives’ infrastructure revolt for forcing Manchin and Sinema to the negotiating table.
The decision to postpone the infrastructure vote was seen as a victory for progressives who were unwavering in their resolve to “hold the line” and vote against the bill unless they received “ironclad” commitments that Biden’s proposed $3.5tn social and environmental package would also pass.
Many progressives also say they will withhold support for the infrastructure bill until the Senate passes the second piece of Biden’s economic agenda, legislation that has yet to be written. Jayapal made clear this was her preference, but later left the door open to the possibility that the party could reach an agreement without a vote.
“If there’s something else that’s short of a vote … that gives me those same assurances, I want to listen to that,” she told reporters.
The stalemate also laid bare deep ideological fractures within the party. Unlike the debate over Barack Obama’s healthcare legislation a decade ago, progressives appear to be more closely aligned with the president and able to flex their political muscles. On Thursday they were united in making the case that centrists are now in the minority.
Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise Movement, a youth group fighting the climate crisis, said: “Tonight, we are so proud of progressives for holding the line. But let’s be clear, progressives are not the ones delaying the vote – Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are.”
Thursday’s delay could anger moderates and cause further infighting that puts Biden’s agenda at risk. Earlier this week Stephanie Murphy, a congresswoman from Florida, warned: “If the vote were to fail or be delayed, there would be a significant breach of trust.”
Republicans who had supported the infrastructure bill in the Senate also acknowledged the setback. Senators Rob Portman, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney said in a joint statement: “While we are disappointed the House of Representatives did not meet its deadline to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, we remain hopeful the House will come together in a spirit of bipartisanship just as the Senate did and pass this important piece of legislation.
“This bill is critically important to modernizing and upgrading everything from our roads and bridges to broadband and increasing the resiliency of the nation’s electrical grid.”
Both pieces of legislation are critical to Biden’s economic vision. While he has staked his domestic agenda – and his legacy – on a $3.5tn social policy package, he invested precious political capital in courting Republicans to support the infrastructure bill, part of a campaign promise to usher in a new era of bipartisanship in Congress. The bill passed the Senate in August, with 19 Republican votes and great fanfare.
But the spirit of bipartisanship dissipated quickly. In the House, Republican leaders lobbied members to vote against the bipartisan bill, forcing Democrats to come up with the votes on their own. Republicans are unified in opposition to the president’s broader spending-and-tax plan.
In a statement on Friday, the Republican senator Mitt Romney, who voted for the infrastructure bill, called the delay a “profound disappointment”.
“It is unacceptable that a major piece of bipartisan legislation, which is vital to our economy and necessary to keep important transportation programs going, is being held hostage by the most extreme House Democrats for a completely unrelated and still unwritten piece of legislation,” he said.
The House is scheduled to leave Washington at the end of this week for a two-week recess but this could be delayed if no deal has been reached. Congress must also find a way to raise the debt ceiling to avoid the US defaulting for the first time in its history.