Biden backs down on the infrastructure bill, linking it to the social policy measure

WASHINGTON – President Biden, facing a cross-party battle over his national agenda, put his own $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill on hold on Friday, telling Democrats that a vote on the popular measure must wait until Democrats pass his much more ambitious social policy and climate change package. .

In a closed-door meeting with Democrats on Capitol Hill, Biden told Democrats for the first time that keeping their two top legislative priorities together had become “a reality.” And he admitted that reaching an agreement between the divided factions on his domestic agenda could take weeks.

“I’m telling you we’re going to do this,” Biden told reporters Friday afternoon, appearing hand in hand with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after she left the closed-door meeting with Democrats. He added: “It doesn’t matter when. It doesn’t matter if it’s in six minutes, six days, or six weeks. We will do it “.

The decision was a blow to the moderate wing of his party, the driver of efforts to separate the measures and achieve a quick victory on the traditional roads and bridges bill that its members desperately wanted to start campaigning on. It was a victory for the liberal flank, which has blocked any action on that bill until Senate Democrats rally around an expansive bill to tackle climate change, expand the worn-out social safety net, and increase costs. taxes on the rich.

And it amounted to something of a gamble, as the president was effectively delaying final action on the part of his economic agenda that he has almost secured in the hope of unifying his tiny Democratic majorities around broader social policy and measures. clean energy that have clearly divided them.

“If we succeed, it will be a victory. The question is: When do we get that victory? “asked Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, one of nine centrist Democrats who got a promise from Pelosi for an infrastructure vote in October.

Democratic leaders insisted they had gotten closer and still had plenty of time to resolve their differences over the biggest bill and deliver on the president’s promises.

“While great progress has been made in the negotiations to develop a House, Senate and White House agreement on the Build Back Better Act, more time is needed,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to colleagues. “Clearly, the bipartisan infrastructure bill will pass once we have an agreement on the reconciliation bill.”

To buy negotiating space, the House passed an interim measure to extend federal highway programs that expired on Friday, and the Senate planned to pass the measure on Saturday.

Ongoing talks between the White House and two moderate senators, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, focused on bringing them to around $ 2 trillion in spending on climate change and social policies like universal pre-kindergarten and licensing. family paid. But Ms. Sinema left Washington for a medical appointment and fundraising retreat in Phoenix – complete with a donor walk in the morning and a dinner / cocktail hour in the evening, without a resolution.

Biden told Democrats at the private meeting that in his aides’ conversations with senators, they had discussed spending up to $ 2.3 trillion. That’s well below the $ 3.5 trillion the president has proposed. Still, he told lawmakers that it would make a significant difference in the lives of Americans, accelerating economic growth, creating millions of high-paying jobs, and delivering benefits that are unique in a generation to the middle class.

“A lot of things get done,” Biden said, according to a person familiar with his comments who relayed them on condition of anonymity.

“I know a little about the legislative process,” Biden, a 36-year Senate veteran, also told the group. He said he could not recall a time when progress on “fundamental issues” would not have required compromises.

His visit left a group of moderates who had been promised a vote on infrastructure before October dissatisfied. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who narrowly won a Virginia district long dominated by Republicans, said “success begets success” and that a victory in infrastructure would have boosted the president’s other priorities.

Supporters of the infrastructure measure, which was approved by an overwhelming majority in the Senate in August to bipartisan applause, were not ashamed of their disappointment.

“Respectfully, the president is wrong,” said Neil Bradley, executive vice president and director of policy for the US Chamber of Commerce. “This bill should have been enacted six years ago. There was an opportunity to enact it six weeks ago. The delay has consequences and none of them are good. “

But many Democrats ignored the criticism, saying the chaos of the week, including two postponed votes on the infrastructure bill, many closed-door meetings between disputing factions, and many laments about the possible collapse of the US agenda. Biden, he would soon forget.

“Everyone wants agreements and promises to be kept, and their feelings are hurt when they feel they are not being treated well,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey, who wanted a vote on infrastructure. But, he added, if the Democrats finally comply, “no one at home gives a damn about any of that.”

Ultimately, the vote on infrastructure was tied to the social policy bill, whether Mr. Biden wanted it or not. White House officials and key centrist senators had been trying all week to agree on a less expensive version that would curb Democratic ambitions but persuade liberals to vote for the public works bill.

But the gap between the 10-year, $ 1.5 trillion spending cap demanded by Manchin and the political demands of Democratic leaders and the White House proved too wide to bridge in a brief burst of negotiations. That meant that votes were not available in the House to pass an infrastructure bill that would otherwise allow Congress to easily pass the celebration of the presidential signature.

Mr. Biden said progressive to prepare to accept a significantly smaller social policy bill, having already dropped from $ 6 trillion in spending over 10 years to $ 3.5 trillion.

“It’s going to be difficult, like for example, we will have to reduce our numbers and we will have to do that work,” said caucus leader Representative Pramila Jayapal from Washington.

But liberals like Jayapal want to legislate with the breadth of the New Deal or the Great Society without the vast majorities enjoyed by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, Biden told them, according to Cuellar.

“What I was trying to do is tell progressives, ‘Lower your expectations,'” he said.

Both Democratic factions feel somewhat betrayed by their leadership: the centrists who said this week they would rather have their priority bill rejected before it is withdrawn from consideration, and the liberals who were angry that the infrastructure bill was introduced earlier. for the Senate to pass his priority bill. .

The infrastructure measure, which would provide $ 550 billion in new funding, was supposed to polish Biden’s bipartisan good faith. It would allocate $ 65 billion to expand high-speed Internet access; $ 110 billion for roads, bridges and other projects; $ 25 billion for airports; and the most funding for Amtrak since passenger rail service was founded in 1971. It would also accelerate a national shift to electric vehicles with new charging stations and grid fortifications that will be needed to power those cars.

It’s not yet clear whether both bills, vital to Biden’s economic agenda, can get back on track. The breakdown of negotiations could put more pressure on Manchin and Sinema to accept a broader social and climate policy package, and on progressives to curb their ambitions.

Liberal lawmakers, who generally come from safe Democratic districts, have the political luxury to stand their ground, but will now face the wrath of Democrats in swing districts that gave their party its slim majority in the House and Senate.

“Today’s delay, brought on by weeks of political stance and prowess, is incredibly disappointing,” Rep. Chris Pappas of New Hampshire, one of those Democrats, said in a statement Thursday night. “The priorities in this legislation are common sense solutions that will help connect our communities, create jobs, and meet the urgent and future needs of our state.”

Later on Friday night, the House approved a month-long extension of the ground transportation programs by a vote of 365 to 51. The infrastructure bill contains longer authorizations of those programs, but when the new year prosecutor began on Friday without his approval, they were temporarily frozen. and some 3,700 workers were laid off.

The Senate will seek to approve the extension on Saturday, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said Friday night. The Transportation Department said the administration was working to quickly reauthorize the frozen programs and that payments to reimburse state and transit agencies for existing grants could allow work to continue without interruption.

Jim Tankersley, Madeleine Ngo, Catie edmondson, Jonathan Martin and Luke broadwater contributed to reporting.

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