Nancy Pelosi stared down progressives in her own party on Friday, vowing to press ahead with a vote on a $1.2tn bipartisan infrastructure bill while delaying consideration of a separate, larger social spending package popular with the leftwing of the Democratic party.
The move breaks a longstanding promise to move the two bills through Congress in tandem, a demand extracted by progressives who were wedded to the programmes in the larger bill, including subsidies for childcare and sweeping investment in efforts to combat climate change.
In a letter to colleagues on Friday afternoon, Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, said it was “important” to push ahead with the infrastructure bill and investment in the social safety net dubbed “Build Back Better”.
However, while Pelosi said House lawmakers would vote on the infrastructure package — which passed the Senate earlier this year with the backing of 10 Republican senators — on Friday, she added that the Build Back Better Act would be subject to an incremental procedural vote.
In doing so, she effectively decoupled the two pillars of president Joe Biden’s legislative agenda, postponing a final vote on Build Back Better until later this year.
The strategy sets the stage for members of Biden’s own party to torpedo his flagship infrastructure bill, if a critical mass of progressives vote against the measure in defiance of the Speaker.
Earlier on Friday, Biden made a direct public appeal to House members to pass both pieces of legislation, saying in a speech at the White House: “I am asking every House member, member of the House of Representatives, to vote yes on both these bills right now.”
“Send the infrastructure bill to my desk. Send the Build Back Better bill to the Senate,” Biden said.
But those pleas fell on deaf ears as Pelosi scrambled to strike a compromise that would satisfy moderates who have railed against the size and scope of the larger plan, and progressives who have refused to sign on to the infrastructure bill without assurances on the bigger budget package. House Republican leadership have made clear they oppose both bills.
It was the latest flashpoint in a months-long intraparty row that has exposed fissures in the president’s party and stymied his legislative agenda at a time when his national approval ratings have dropped sharply.
Many Democrats blamed the inaction on Capitol Hill for their weak performance in this week’s governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey, as well as a number of down-ballot local contests in other states. Democrats are seeking to shore up support heading into next year’s midterm elections, when control of both chambers of Congress will be up for grabs.
At the start of the day, Democratic leaders had intended to pass both bills before the weekend. But it soon became clear that the goal would go unrealised after a group of at least six House moderates, including Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, said they would not vote for Build Back Better until they saw official cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, an independent agency.
Critics have questioned the White House’s insistence that the measures would be “fully paid for” through a crackdown on tax evasion, a corporate minimum profits tax and a new tax surcharge for people earning more than $10m a year.
Pelosi then put forward a new plan to postpone a final vote on Build Back Better while still pressing ahead with the infrastructure bill. But that proposal was quickly rejected by House progressives, led by Pramila Jayapal of Washington state.
Pelosi cannot afford to lose more than a handful of votes given Democrats have a razor-thin eight-vote advantage over Republicans in the lower chamber. But the Speaker appeared defiant in the face of Jayapal’s challenge on Friday afternoon, telling assembled television cameras that she hoped to pass the infrastructure bill “today”.
She added that she aimed to push through a final version of Build Back Better before the Thanksgiving holiday later this month.
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