Top Democrats abruptly postponed an expected House vote Friday on their 10-year, $1.85 trillion social and environment measure, as infighting between progressives and moderates once again sidetracked the pillar of President Joe Biden's domestic agenda.
In a bid to hand him a needed victory, leaders still prepared to try pushing an accompanying $1 trillion package of road and other infrastructure projects through the chamber and to his desk. But even the fate of that popular bill, expected to create jobs in every state, was in question.
Progressives threatened to vote against it, continuing their demand that the two bills be voted on together to pressure moderates to support the larger, more expansive social measure. With Democrats able to lose just three votes and prevail in the narrowly divided House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she would press ahead anyway, saying she had a "pretty good feel" for the support.
Pelosi for years has refused to hold votes on bills unless she had near certainty that they would pass to avoid embarrassing defeats.
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The scrambled plans cast a fresh pall over a party that's struggled for weeks to take advantage of its control of the White House and Congress by advancing its top priorities. That's been hard, in part because of Democrats' slender majorities, with internal divisions forcing House leaders to miss several self-imposed deadlines for votes because of unresolved internal divisions.
"Welcome to my world," Pelosi told reporters.
Democratic leaders had hoped to see the House approve both measures Friday, producing twin triumphs for a president and party eager to rebound from this week's deflating off-year elections and show they can govern. The party's gubernatorial candidates were defeated in Virginia and squeaked through in New Jersey, two blue-leaning states.
But those plans were dashed when, after hours of talks, a half-dozen moderates insisted they would vote against the sprawling package of health, education, family and climate change initiatives unless the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office first provided its cost estimate for the measure.
Democratic leaders have said that would take days or more. With Friday's delay and lawmakers' plans to leave town for a week's break, that could mean the budget estimates would be ready by the time a vote is held.
Readjusting the party's timeline for finally passing the $1.85 trillion measure to reflect political reality, Pelosi said that once the CBO figures are provided, "we'll have a Thanksgiving gift for the American people."
In a letter to her colleagues announcing the new voting schedule, she wrote, "The agenda that we are advancing is transformative and historic, hence challenging."
The infrastructure measure cleared the Senate easily in August with bipartisan support, including the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The package would provide huge sums for every state for highway, rail, mass transit, broadband, airport, drinking and waste water, power grids, ports and other projects.
But it became a pawn in the long struggle for leverage between Democrats' progressives and moderates. Progressives said they'd back the infrastructure legislation only if the two measures were voted on together.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who leads the 95-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, revived that timing link Friday, saying the White House and Congress' nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation had provided all the fiscal information lawmakers needed for the broad bill.
"If our six colleagues still want to wait for a CBO score, we would agree to give them that time — after which point we can vote on both bills together," she wrote. That strongly suggested that at least some progressives would vote Friday against the infrastructure bill.
Earlier Friday, Biden, meeting reporters to tout a strong monthly jobs report, said he was returning to the Oval Office "to make some calls" to lawmakers. He said he would ask them to "vote yes on both these bills right now."
House passage of Biden's larger measure would send it to the Senate, where it would face certain changes and more Democratic drama. That's chiefly because of demands by Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to contain the measure's costs and curb or drop some of its initiatives.
But House approval of the smaller, bipartisan infrastructure measure would send it directly to the White House, where Biden would be certain to take a victory lap.
Pelosi met late Thursday with Hispanic lawmakers wanting the larger measure to go as far as possible in helping immigrants remain in the U.S. Their prospects for bold action are limited by strict Senate rules, though. Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., said Friday that they'd discussed moving on the issue in other bills and considered Pelosi an ally.
Pelosi's strategy seemed focused on passing the most robust social and climate bill possible in her chamber and then leaving it to he Senate to adjust or strip out the portions its members won't agree to. In late tweaks to the bill to nail down votes, the House Rules Committee approved revisions to a state-and-local tax deduction and other issues.
Half the size of Biden's initial $3.5 trillion package, the bill exceeds 2,100 pages and has support progressive lawmakers, even though it is smaller than they wanted.
Republicans oppose the measure as too expensive and damaging to the economy.
The package would provide large numbers of Americans with assistance to pay for healthcare, raising children and caring for elderly people at home. There would be lower prescription drug costs as Medicare for the first time would be able to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices for some drugs, a long-sought Democratic priority.
The package would provide some $555 billion in tax breaks encouraging cleaner energy and electric vehicles. Democrats added key provisions in recent days, restoring a new paid family leave program and work permits for immigrants.
Much of the package's cost would be covered with higher taxes on wealthier Americans and large corporations.
Manchin has panned the new family leave program, which is expected to provide four weeks of paid time off, less than the 12 weeks once envisioned.
Senators are also likely to strip out a just-added immigration provision that would let 7 million immigrants in the country without legal standing apply for up to two five-year work permits.