With his agenda in peril in advance of an international climate summit, President Joe Biden came to Capitol Hill on Thursday and pleaded with House Democrats to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure bill—to prove to the world that American democracy actually can work.
The scene inside the closed-door meeting became so earnestly patriotic and rah-rah that, in between cheers for the president, some lawmakers broke into a chant of “Vote! Vote! Vote!”
But as soon as Biden left the Capitol and boarded Air Force One en route to Europe, the impromptu episode of The West Wing ended. Lawmakers snapped back to the realities of American democracy. And it was a mess.
Over the next few hours, the familiar drama that has pitted factions of the Democratic Party against each other—or, more specifically, the vast majority of the Democratic Party against two Democratic senators—entered its chaotic third act.
By late Thursday morning, the White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s team revved up a push to get at least 218 Democrats to vote for the infrastructure bill. Vice President Kamala Harris began calling House progressives to try to get the infrastructure bill over the finish line, according to a source.
A White House official confirmed that account, telling The Daily Beast that “throughout the day,” Harris “has been making calls to House Democratic members about the [Build Back Better Act] framework.”
But the whipping efforts quickly collided with the truth that there aren’t 218 Democrats ready to pass that bill without stronger assurances from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) that they would in turn pass the other plank of Biden’s agenda.
That plank, a $1.75 trillion social spending package, looks to be moving toward completion. But Manchin and Sinema have only offered tepid support—Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI) said Thursday they were speaking in “hieroglyphics”—and progressives are resolute that they won’t budge on the infrastructure bill until Manchin and Sinema fully back the legislation.
With progressives and the two senators at an impasse, House leaders conceded that neither bill would pass this week. After a day of uncertainty, lawmakers voted on an extension of expiring transportations programs that would have otherwise been taken care of in the infrastructure bill.
With that, the legislative chaos of the day was over. House Democrats continued with a hearing on their 1,684 page bill, even though that meeting was now unnecessary at the moment. Senators, as they’re wont to do on Thursdays, left town. And the House quickly followed suit.
The path ahead now remains unclear. One lawmaker said as many as 40 Democrats are prepared to vote down the infrastructure bill if an agreement with Manchin and Sinema is not reached. And a statement from the Progressive Caucus reaffirmed that a number of members in that group wouldn’t vote for the infrastructure measure without stronger assurances.
The problem is, however, that the two senators everyone is waiting on don’t seem any closer to declaring their support in a firmer way. Nor do they seem inclined to explain much of their position.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) said neither of them sees that their ambiguity is feeding other Democrats’ belief that they are not interested in passing the broader package.
“They don’t feel there’s anything more they need to say,” Coons told reporters.
In the interim, the back-and-forth is raising the blood pressure of Democrats who desperately want to get this agenda enacted.
Democrats believed Biden wanted a win that he could tout at a high-stakes international climate conference in Scotland this weekend. Now, it looks like he’ll arrive empty-handed.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) said he was “disappointed” that the infrastructure bill didn’t pass on Thursday. But he also indicated that if Democrats don’t trust each other, they should trust Biden.
“I don’t believe we should trust Manchin and Sinema, but I do trust the president,” Beyer said.
Indeed, all the president could offer at a meeting with House Democrats on Thursday morning was his promise to get everything done. One lawmaker in the room said that nearly everyone was inclined to take the president at his word, but many were not sold that he could bring Manchin and Sinema along to support the framework his administration outlined on Thursday morning.
And despite efforts from House leaders, the vice president, and other administration officials—Michael Regan, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, addressed members of the Congressional Black Caucus Thursday in support of the legislation—the whip efforts did not break the resolve of progressives.
Still, the fact that the administration and Democratic leaders made the push at all is a departure from their strategy in a near-identical stand-off over the infrastructure bill last month, when moderates tried to force a vote on it before much of the Build Back Better Act was ready.
As Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) said, that effort and engagement from Biden was enough. He said he’d have voted against the infrastructure deal on Wednesday. But after the president’s visit, he said he would have supported it.
“When your President comes to your caucus and looks you in the eye and tells you that he can get it done, and when your Speaker of the House—who has demonstrated leadership capabilities as has the president—she tells you, ‘we're going to get it done,” Johnson said, “I'm going to put my money on those two horses.”