Pelosi’s House Democrats approve Biden’s infrastructure bill, but centrist revolt thwarts passage of $1.75 trillion social spending package

House speaker nancy pelosi
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) takes questions from reporters at her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
  • The House passed the infrastructure bill, delivering Biden a win after months of Democratic infighting.
  • Their success was partly overshadowed by Democrats’ failure to pass the social bill due to a centrist revolt.
  • House Democrats aim to approve the social legislation and send it to the Senate before Thanksgiving.

The House late Friday approved a $US550 ($AU743) billion infrastructure bill aimed at restoring roads, bridges and broadband connections after a prolonged stretch of Democratic infighting, locking in a major legislative achievement for President Joe Biden. Over a dozen Republican lawmakers also lent crucial votes to secure its passage as well.

It capped a dramatic showdown within the party over a larger $US1.75 ($AU2) trillion social spending and climate bill to expand healthcare, childcare and overhaul tax laws, likely foreshadowing more political turbulence in the weeks ahead. Democrats had set out to pass both, but a centrist revolt stymied passage of the social legislation.

The infrastructure vote was 228-206 with 13 Republican lawmakers joining most House Democrats.

Biden hailed passage of the core infrastructure legislation on Friday, which cleared the Senate in August and now heads to his desk. “Generations from now, people will look back and know this is when America won the economic competition for the 21st Century,” he said in a statement, calling it “a monumental step forward.”

Amid a day of chaos in the House, Biden appeared to play a major role negotiating a compromise to resolve a worsening feud between progressives eager to expand the role of government and centrists determined to scale back the party’s sizable ambitions.

A small group of centrists refused to support the larger spending bill without an economic analysis from the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan scorekeeper. That caused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi moved to shelve plans to pass the measure and instead set up a procedural vote advancing it since the CBO report wasn’t expected for another two weeks.

Yet her maneuver angered progressives demanding passage of both measures simultaneously, and they threatened to withdraw support from the infrastructure plan. Pelosi and House Democratic leaders toiled to find a solution capable of pacifying the party’s warring factions, a difficult feat to pull off since they can only lose three votes.

But Pelosi and her lieutenants barreled ahead with plans to hold both votes, even as the prospect of canceling a vote for the third time in two months to avoid defeat hung over her. “We are not a lock-step party,” she said. “It’s an additional challenge. But I see every challenge as an opportunity.”

“We’re not developing a plan B,” Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the party’s chief vote-counter, told Insider.

Biden and Pelosi helped secure an agreement from centrists to back the social bill provided the CBO analysis showed it was fully paid for. That was enough for Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who freed up progressive lawmakers to back the roads-and-bridges bill.

Not every Democrat was happy with the arrangement. Six progressives voted against the infrastructure bill arguing it would sever the link with the social plan. These lawmakers included Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Jamaal Bowman of New York, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Cori Bush of Missouri.

Democrats approved the procedural vote to advance the $US1.75 ($AU2) trillion social spending plan in a 221-213 party-line vote shortly after passage of the infrastructure bill. They’re aiming to finalize the spending legislation and send it to the Senate sometime during the week of November 15.

The centrist revolt prompted a lot of frustration among Democrats who wanted to swiftly secure passage of both measures, particularly in the wake of the party’s electoral beating in Virginia. “Everyone’s exhausted and everyone’s frustrated,” one House Democratic aide granted anonymity to speak candidly told Insider.

“I think the whole country is waiting for us to vote,” Rep. Anna Eshoo of California said.

Progressives long viewed the infrastructure bill as a bargaining chip to prod moderates into supporting the larger bill containing the bulk of Biden’s economic agenda. But they dropped their resistance to passing the bill without a Senate vote.

Jayapal said that it had boiled down to a direct appeal from Biden. “I believe the president that he will get 51 votes in the Senate,” she told Insider on Thursday.

Progressives seemed to be caught-off guard when a small group of so-called Blue Dog centrists such as Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida suddenly objected to passing the social spending plan without reviewing its impact on spending and the debt.

“We began today with what we thought was an understanding, ready to cast our votes and a very small cohort of our colleagues moved the goalposts,” Rep. Jared Huffman of California told reporters. He added that Biden had phoned in during a three-hour meeting between dozens of progressives to urge them to pass the infrastructure bill.

Democrats breathed a sigh of relief once they were in striking distance of a deal to pass the infrastructure bill.

“Well, the whole day was a clusterfuck, right?” Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin told reporters. “But beyond that … I thought everyone was working in a very congenial way. I mean, rank and file members figured out how to get shit done.”