House Passes $1 Trillion Infrastructure Bill, Putting Social Policy Bill on Hold; The Infrastructure Bill at a Glance

Source: By Jonathan Weisman, Emily Cochrane and Catie Edmondson, New Yo • Posted: Sunday, November 7, 2021

Progressives who had threatened to sink the measure agreed to support it after extracting a promise from moderates that they would ultimately back the social safety net and climate bill.

Video player loading

House Democrats passed a $1 trillion bill to address the nation’s aging infrastructure, improve climate resilience and expand high-speed internet access, but put a larger social policy and climate bill on hold.Oliver Contreras for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The House passed a $1 trillion bill on Friday night to rebuild the country’s aging public works system, fund new climate resilience initiatives and expand access to high-speed internet service, giving final approval to a central plank of President Biden’s economic agenda after a daylong drama that pitted moderate Democrats against progressives.

But an even larger social safety net and climate change bill was back on hold, with a half-dozen moderate-to-conservative Democrats withholding their votes until a nonpartisan analysis could tally its price tag.

For Mr. Biden, passage of the infrastructure bill fulfilled a marquee legislative goal that he had promised to deliver since the early days of his presidency: the largest single investment of federal resources into infrastructure projects in more than a decade, including a substantial effort to fortify the nation’s response to the warming of the planet.

“Tonight, we took a monumental step forward as a nation,” Mr. Biden said in a statement after the vote, lauding both the infrastructure and the social policy bills. “Generations from now, people will look back and know this is when America won the economic competition for the 21st century.”

The drubbing Democrats took in off-year elections on Tuesday had given new urgency to the president’s demand for legislative action.

On Friday, Mr. Biden put his credibility on the line, pleading with liberals to end their monthslong blockade and send him the public works measure immediately without passage of their priority, the social safety net measure. He backed passage of a rule for debating the social policy bill, called the Build Back Better Act, as a tangible sign that it, too, would soon pass.

“He urged us to trust him,” said Representative Jared Huffman, Democrat of California, “but not blindly.”

At 9 p.m., Mr. Biden made that plea public: “I am urging all members to vote for both the rule for consideration of the Build Back Better Act and final passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill tonight,” he wrote. “I am confident that during the week of Nov. 15, the House will pass the Build Back Better Act.”

He was expected to quickly sign the infrastructure bill into law.

It will provide $550 billion in new funds over 10 years to shore up roads, bridges and highways, improve internet access and modernize the nation’s power grid. The measure also includes the United States’ largest investment to prepare for climate change: $50 billion to help communities grapple with the devastating fires, floods, storms and droughts that scientists say have been worsened by global warming.

In a late-night vote that followed a day of near-death experiences for Mr. Biden’s agenda, the House passed the infrastructure measure on a 228-to-206 vote,with 13 Republicans bucking their party leadership and joining all but six Democrats in support. Its triumph was something of a vindication of Mr. Biden’s efforts to seek bipartisanship on a key issue that both parties have long viewed as a priority.

But ultimately, passage came not just because of Republican backing but because liberal Democrats decided to trust balking centrists to eventually come to their side. Passage had been stalled for months, while liberals withheld their support to force an agreement on the social policy bill. Progressive Democrats had revolted anew on Friday, with many insisting that they could not back the measure without a vote on the social welfare bill.

But moderates refused to support that legislation without an official cost estimate from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office — which will most likely not arrive until mid-November — forcing Democrats to wrangle a late-night compromise that would allow action.

In the end, enough progressives accepted a written commitment, released after 10 p.m., from five centrist colleagues that they would back the social safety net and climate package in mid-November, as long as the numbers add up.

“Welcome to my world — this is the Democratic Party,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California told reporters at the Capitol as she announced the postponement of the social policy bill. “We are not a lock-step party.”

“It’s an additional challenge,” she added. “But I see every challenge as an opportunity.”

The delay in voting on the social policy bill came despite public and private appeals from Mr. Biden. As Ms. Pelosi held a marathon round of meetings in her Capitol office to try to resolve the internal disputes, the president called lawmakers and pushed for a quick resolution on Friday.

Mr. Biden said at the White House that he was asking every House member “to vote yes on both these bills right now.”

He concluded with a succinct message for lawmakers: “Let’s get this done.”

Representative Pramila Jayapal, the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Representative Josh Gottheimer speaking to reporters outside of the Capitol. Representative Jayapal was called twice by President Biden in an effort to ease passage of the infrastructure measure.
Oliver Contreras for The New York Times

He followed up with private calls to moderate skeptics balking at supporting the social policy bill. Later, Mr. Biden twice phoned Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, in an effort to ease passage of the infrastructure measure, and called in to an hourslong meeting of the caucus, where he was placed on speakerphone to make his case for supporting the infrastructure measure. He postponed a planned weekend trip to his home in Delaware as the negotiations stretched into Friday night.

“At a certain point, we have to trust one another,” said Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont, as he emerged from the Progressive Caucus meeting.

Liberal Democrats who had demanded that infrastructure measure move in tandem with the social policy bill had indicated that they might oppose the infrastructure measure on its own, dealing Mr. Biden and their leaders an embarrassing defeat. They huddled into the evening on Friday, ordering pizza delivered to the Capitol as they discussed whether to allow the infrastructure measure to proceed.

Ultimately, they did so after winning a painstakingly negotiated written promise from centrists that they would eventually support the social safety and climate measure, once assured of its fiscal impact.

In a statement late Friday night, the centrists declared: “We commit to voting for the Build Back Better Act, in its current form other than technical changes,” as soon as they obtain an estimate from the Congressional Budget Office consistent with White House figures showing that the measure is fully paid for. The group — Representatives Ed Case of Hawaii, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Stephanie Murphy of Florida, Kathleen Rice of New York and Kurt Schrader of Oregon — said it would do so by the week of Nov. 15.

Two of the holdouts, Representatives Jared Golden of Maine and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, notably did not sign on.

But in her own late-night statement, Ms. Jayapal said it was enough for progressives to allow the infrastructure bill to pass.

For Mr. Biden, approval of the public works measure was welcome progress at a vulnerable moment. The president’s approval ratings have declined in recent months amid concerns about increasing inflation, a persistent pandemic and the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The Infrastructure Bill at a Glance

And he returned from an overseas trip this week to find grim political realities at home, after Republicans won the governor’s race in Virginia and came closer than expected to defeating the Democratic governor of New Jersey. The results underscored a sense of dread among Democrats who had already been bracing for losses in the 2022 midterm elections that could cost them control of Congress.

But if anything, the prospect of losses deepened the divisions imperiling both pillars of Mr. Biden’s agenda. Liberals, moderates and conservatives had all said the lesson of their off-year election rebuke was that voters needed to see action and competence.

“We were already in high gear to get it done, but if there’s a higher gear, we certainly went into it,” Ms. Jayapal declared.

But if liberal Democrats from safe seats were dug in on their ambitious social welfare and climate change bill, those from swing districts were clearly spooked.

Among the Democrats who demanded a better handle on the social welfare bill’s costs were members from tenuous districts, such as Mr. Golden, from northern Maine, Ms. Murphy, from Central Florida, and Ms. Spanberger, whose suburban district outside Richmond, Va., swung sharply right.

But by midday, their efforts had stalled as a 15-minute House vote dragged on more than seven hours — a record, lawmakers said, for the longest vote in the chamber — as Ms. Pelosi toiled to line up support. Republicans, united in opposition to the social policy bill and gleeful over the chaos, forced additional procedural votes to further derail the process.

“Where are the Democrats today?” said Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader. “Breaking their own rules, setting new records just keeping votes open, and trying to intimidate and bully their own members to vote for something.”

The delay felt painfully familiar to Democratic lawmakers and Mr. Biden, who have tried and failed twice in the past several weeks to push the pair of bills through the House, only to see their plans impeded by internal divisions.

Democratic leaders tried to use an analysis by the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation and a White House analysis of the spending costs to win over moderate holdouts, to no avail. Top White House aides were seen entering Ms. Pelosi’s office as party leaders struggled to win over the moderates.

“It’s a very difficult task, and we’re working on it,” said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, as he brushed away questions Friday about whether Democrats would have the necessary votes.

Eventually, top Democrats pulled back on their plans to march forward on the social policy bill and instead signed onto a plan proposed by leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus to shelve it and move to a vote on the infrastructure plan.

They would first take a procedural vote on the safety net and climate plan that would pave the way for considering it later — a show of “good faith,” its proponents said, according to a person with knowledge of discussions within the Congressional Black Caucus.

“What I do know: If I don’t get this and I don’t get this, and we don’t move for something, then we get nothing,” said Representative Joyce Beatty of Ohio, the chairwoman of the caucus. “And everybody wants both of the bills to pass.”

Luke Broadwater and Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.