Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a publicly-released letter that most House progressives support passage of the $1.2 trillion Senate-passed infrastructure bill, despite continued divisions forcing her to push off a Thursday vote on the bill.
While progressives are generally supportive of the smaller infrastructure-focused bill, they see the more expansive Build Back Better reconciliation bill as a far more important package. To this end, the caucus of House progressives has held up passage of the infrastructure bill for months, holding the moderate-preferred bill hostage in a bid to force moderates to support the Build Back Better Act.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the foremost progressive in the Senate, expressed this feeling in a tweet. Sanders wrote, “Physical infrastructure is important, but the needs of working families & combatting climate change is more important.”
And progressives have held to this threat for months.
After the announcement of a framework budget deal (pdf), progressives were disappointed with the compromise, which cut the bill in half from $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion. Several House progressives immediately picked up their old threat, demanding changes to the new bill.
Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) was one such progressive. “I feel like a little bamboozled because this is not what I thought was coming today,” she said, warning that she would vote against the infrastructure bill if the budget bill were not strengthened.
Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who supports quick passage of both bills, summed up the situation. Jayapal told reporters Thursday “There are too many ‘no’ votes for the [infrastructure bill] to pass.”
This criticism from progressives forced Pelosi to delay a vote once again on Thursday, a move that frustrated members in both factions.
Jayapal upbraided leadership for even attempting a vote Thursday, saying “I tried to tell anybody who would listen that we didn’t have the votes.”
A supporter of passing both bills, Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) admitted that the delay is “Not good optics. It’s terrible optics.”
Moderate Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who has spoken out against her party’s bill in the past, said that many Democrats are “extremely frustrated that legislative obstruction of the [infrastructure bill] continues—not based on the bill’s merits, but because of a misguided strategy to use the bill as leverage on separate legislation.”
“I am disappointed that my colleagues, a small sect of my colleagues, have decided they are going to deny the American people this much-needed investment for their own political purposes,” Murphy said in an interview.
Disregarding this latest setback, Pelosi said in a “Dear Colleague” letter that “most Members who were not prepared for a yes vote [Thursday] have expressed their commitment to support the [infrastructure bill].”
Despite their general support for the bill, it is likely that more negotiations will be necessary, forcing Democrats to go back to square one to regain progressive support and hold on to moderate support.
Sanders indicated as much, saying of the bill “I think if you look at the bill that the President announced today, it is probably the most consequential bill since the 1960s. But,” Sanders noted, “clearly, to my mind, it has some major gaps.”
He indicated that his main problem with the bill as it stands is its lack of health care provisions.
Sanders and other progressives have long fought for prescription drug policies that would lower the cost of medication, and these aren’t included in the framework agreement.
“There is, [to] the best of my knowledge, no language in there that takes on the pharmaceutical industry,” Sanders said. He added that the new budget would include Medicare hearing benefits, but wouldn’t have vision or dental care benefits.
Sanders refused to commit to voting for the bill in its current form, but said that he and other Democrats would “fight to make a good bill stronger.”
Other Democrats in the House and Senate were especially concerned by the bill’s lack of healthcare provisions as well.
Another area of contention is the bill’s removal of the State and Local Tax deduction (SALT), an extremely popular program in high income tax states like New York and New Jersey. The absence of the program led moderate Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) to guess that the bill would not be able to win the votes to pass.
Progressives are also concerned that key swing voters Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have yet to commit to voting for the bill. Without their votes, the bill cannot pass in the Senate—a risk that progressives are unwilling to take, fearing that moderates will not support the budget bill if the infrastructure bill passes first.
“Basically it’s the [dis]trust of Manchin and Sinema,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.). “That’s the problem.”
While many progressives have promised to vote for the infrastructure bill with President Joe Biden’s assurance that the budget can pass both chambers, this assurance is not one that Biden can give them at the moment, leaving Democratic leaders little choice but to continue negotiations within their long-divided party.