As infrastructure deal gathers steam, Democratic cracks begin to show
By Jonathan Weisman
Liberal House Democrats, squeezed between President Joe Biden’s personal lobbying for a bipartisan infrastructure deal and their own ambitions for a far more expansive domestic agenda, are warning that they will not hesitate to bring down the accord without action on their long-sought priorities.
The brewing fight, which pits progressives against moderates more aligned with the president’s tactics, is exposing cracks in the party’s fragile strategy for enacting its economic plans.
Democratic leaders have said the Senate centrists’ agreement, which would pump $1.2 trillion into roads, bridges, tunnels and broadband, will not get through Congress without a second, larger bill. That measure includes progressive wish-list items that Republicans have rejected, such as universal preschool and community college access, a health care expansion and a broad effort to combat climate change.
But progressive House members have begun questioning the depth of that commitment, particularly after Biden walked back a threat he made to condition the narrower bill on the more costly one, and as he and other administration officials begin a lobbying blitz around the country to build support for the infrastructure package.
On Tuesday, Biden was to promote the deal in La Crosse, Wisconsin, the home district of a long-targeted House Democrat, Rep. Ron Kind. And on Monday, Pete Buttigieg, the Transportation secretary, toured a crumbling tunnel to Manhattan with two New Jersey Democrats, both of whom said they came away convinced that Congress should move now on infrastructure.
“We’re going to do what we should have done from the start, which is to try to pass this good bipartisan bill, and then Democrats, as the majority party, will try to legislate,” one of the representatives, Tom Malinowski, said after the visit with Buttigieg. “There’s no need for drama around that.”
Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who was also on the tour, said the bipartisan infrastructure deal was historic on its own and “something we should celebrate by getting it passed as quickly as possible.”
But the fear among liberals is that if the bipartisan measure gathers enough momentum to quickly pass, some Democrats — particularly centrists like Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — will lose their appetite for another major economic package, or will force progressives to substantially scale back the scope and cost of any such plan before they are willing to vote for it.
Progressives in the House warn that their support for the infrastructure agreement is contingent on the success of the bigger bill, which could amount to several trillion dollars and which Democrats plan to push through using a budget maneuver known as reconciliation to shield it from a Republican filibuster.
“The president can say he’s bipartisan, he can go out and support the deal, but at the end of the day, if he wants it, he’s going to have to support our priorities,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. and the chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus, which represents 93 House members.
The pressure will rise. Buttigieg’s trip to New Jersey and New York on Monday included Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, and it centered around perhaps the biggest infrastructure priority in the region, a pair of long-sought rail tunnels into the city.
As Biden visits La Crosse, Tom Vilsack, the Agriculture secretary, will also be in western Wisconsin to promote the potential benefits of the infrastructure compromise to rural communities.
Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, the chief vote counter of the Progressive Caucus, had a blunt message about the administration’s lobbying effort.
“I think it’s really important to know that nothing is going to get accomplished by doing that,” she said. “It’s clear a majority of the Democratic caucus, whether progressive or not, is interested in delivering, and that delivery will only happen if the progressives are on board.”
But Republicans are already working to pressure Democrats to decouple the two measures.
“The president has appropriately delinked a potential bipartisan infrastructure bill from the massive, unrelated tax-and-spend plans that Democrats want to pursue on a partisan basis,” Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, said in a statement Monday.
“Now I am calling on President Biden to engage Leader Schumer and Speaker Pelosi and make sure they follow his lead.”
Both have said the two measures will move on parallel tracks, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week that there would be no infrastructure measure without a reconciliation bill.
All of that is prompting House liberals to worry that Biden and moderate Democrats will take the infrastructure deal now, rather than play for the larger package later.
“We want to make sure that our communities are represented in federal legislation,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., “and the fact of the matter is that these bipartisan deals are often very exclusionary of working-class communities and of communities of color that really badly need infrastructure investments.”
The House Progressive Caucus is pushing for a bill that addresses five categories: the “care economy,” which includes paid family leave, universal child care and $400 billion for long-term health care; Medicare expansion to lower eligibility to age 60, widen coverage to vision, dental and hearing, and empower the government to negotiate prescription drug prices; climate change measures, including a clean-energy standard for electric utilities and a civilian climate corps; a path to citizenship for essential immigrant workers; and low-income housing.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who leads the Senate Budget Committee, sees putting all of that into a budget resolution in July that could cost $6 trillion. Other Senate Democrats say they want a much smaller package.
But House liberals are in no mood to give up their priorities while giving Republicans their infrastructure spending. Progressive Caucus leaders have been actively canvassing their members to show Pelosi how cohesive and serious they are, Jayapal said.
Omar said House liberals would meet this week with the House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, as he begins drafting the House budget blueprint, and had been in constant communication with Sanders.
“On this, the last thing you want is progressives saying, ‘We’re voting no because they’ve sold out climate, education and child care,’” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who predicted a united left flank would bring down an infrastructure-only bill.
Moderate Democrats in the House and the Senate are similarly working together to head off such a result, said Gottheimer, who used language like that deployed by Senate Republicans: “I don’t think we should hold our infrastructure hostage.”