Joe Biden has 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.
Pledging to “get it done” after days of frantic negotiations that saw the party fail to strike an internal deal on a scaled-back version of Biden’s $3.5tn social and environmental policy overhaul, the president hoped to break an impasse even as hopes of compromise before the weekend faded.
“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,” Biden said, as he exited the caucus room.
The visit comes a day after after the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, delayed a vote on part of his economic agenda, a bipartisan $1tn public works measure, in an embarrassing setback. Democrats returned to the Capitol on Friday deeply divided but determined to make progress on Biden’s ambitious economic vision.
Pelosi had earlier promised that there would a “vote today” on the infrastructure measure, which progressive House lawmakers have maintained they would not support unless it is passed in tandem with the far more expansive $3.5tn package.
But hopes that Biden had forged a truce among Democrats were dashed on Friday night when Josh Gottheimer, a leading moderate in the House, publicly condemned Pelosi for delaying the infrastructure vote.
“It’s deeply regrettable that Speaker Pelosi breached her firm, public commitment to Members of Congress and the American people to hold a vote and to pass the once-in-a-century bipartisan infrastructure bill on or before September 27,” the congressman from New Jersey said in a statement.
Gottheimer added: “We cannot let this small faction on the far left — who employ Freedom Caucus tactics, as described by the New York Times today — destroy the President’s agenda and stop the creation of two million jobs a year — including for the millions of hard-working men and women of labor.”
The language appeared deliberately inflammatory. The reference to a “small faction on the far left” was sure to infuriate progressives who claim to have the White House and the vast majority of the Democratic caucus on their side. The Freedom Caucus is a group of conservative Republicans intent on pushing party leadership to the right.
Gottheimer said: “This far left faction is willing to put the President’s entire agenda, including this historic bipartisan infrastructure package, at risk. They’ve put civility and bipartisan governing at risk.”
In a further sign of internal tensions, Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney of New York issued a sharp response to Gottheimer’s assertions, tweeting that Biden had stood with Pelosi and 95% of House Democrats “and said the opposite: that his historic vision for America first requires a Build Back Better reconciliation deal. That’s the way a bipartisan infrastructure bill will win the votes to become law.”
Pelosi confirmed there would be no infrastructure vote as more time was needed to negotiate.
“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 to complete the task,” the House speaker said in a statement.
Democrats remained deeply at odds over the scale and structure of the more expansive package which contains 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.
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.
In the private meeting with House lawmakers, Biden reportedly discussed a compromise topline of $1.9tn to $2.3tn, according to a person in the room who spoke with the Associated Press.
Congresswoman Madeleine Dean told MSNBC that Biden was “pragmatic” and “realistic” in the closed-door meeting with lawmakers. “He said, ‘Look, clearly I have to be straight up with you. It is not going to be the $3.5tn number that we would all like, or many many of us would like … What I ask of you are the programmatic things that must be in the bill, and then we can do the math from there’,” Dean said.
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.
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.
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.