U.S. President Joe Biden on Saturday hailed Congress’s passage of his $1 trillion US infrastructure package as a “monumental step forward for the nation” after fractious fellow Democrats resolved a months-long standoff in their ranks to finally seal the deal.
The House passed the measure by a vote of 228-206 late Friday, prompting prolonged cheers from the relieved Democratic side of the chamber. Thirteen Republicans, mostly moderates, supported the legislation, while six Democrats — including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Cori Bush of Missouri — opposed it.
Approval of the bill, which promises to create legions of jobs and improve broadband, water supplies and other public works, sends it to the desk of a president whose approval ratings have dropped and whose nervous party got a cold shoulder from voters in this week’s off-year elections.
Democratic gubernatorial candidates were defeated in Virginia and squeaked through in New Jersey, two blue-leaning states. Those setbacks made party leaders — and moderates and progressives alike — impatient to produce impactful legislation and demonstrate they know how to govern. Democrats can also ill afford to seem in disarray a year before midterm elections that could result in Republicans regaining congressional control.
Burst of adrenaline for Democrats
The infrastructure package is a historic investment by any measure, one that Biden compares in its breadth to the building of the interstate highway system in the last century or the transcontinental railroad the century before.
“Finally, infrastructure week,” he said in his White House remarks on Saturday.
“This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuilding America.”
His reference to infrastructure week was a jab at his predecessor, Donald Trump, whose White House declared several times that “infrastructure week” had arrived, only for nothing to happen.
Simply freeing up the infrastructure measure for final congressional approval was like a burst of adrenaline for Democrats. Yet despite the win, Democrats endured a setback when they postponed a vote on a second, even larger measure until later this month.
That 10-year, $1.85 trillion US measure bolstering health, family and climate change programs was sidetracked after moderates demanded a cost estimate on the sprawling measure from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The postponement dashed hopes that the day would produce a double-barrelled win for Biden with passage of both bills.
But in an evening breakthrough brokered by Biden and House leaders, five moderates later agreed to back that bill if the budget office’s estimates are consistent with preliminary numbers that White House and congressional tax analysts have provided. The agreement, in which lawmakers promised to vote on the social and environment bill by the week of Nov. 15, stood as a significant step toward a House vote that could ultimately ship it to the Senate.
“Generations from now, people will look back and know this is when America won the economic competition for the 21st century,” Biden said in a written statement early Saturday.
Biden delayed plans to close deal
The president and his wife, Jill Biden, delayed plans to travel Friday evening to their house in Rehoboth Beach, Del.
Instead, he spoke to House leaders, moderates and progressives, said a White House official who described the conversations on condition of anonymity.
In a two-sentence statement, the five moderates said that if the fiscal estimates on the social and environment bill raise problems, “we remain committed to working to resolve any discrepancies” to pass it. The five included Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat and leader of a group of centrists who this summer repeatedly pressured House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to schedule earlier votes on the infrastructure bill.
In exchange, liberals agreed to back the infrastructure measure, which they’d spent months holding hostage in an effort to pressure moderates to back the larger bill.
The day marked a rare détente between Democrats’ moderate and progressive wings that party leaders hope will continue this fall. The rival factions have spent recent weeks accusing each other of jeopardizing Biden’s and the party’s success by overplaying their hands and expressing a deep distrust of each other.
‘Not a lockstep party’
The agreement came together after the White House issued a statement from Biden explicitly urging Democrats to support both bills. “I am confident that during the week of November 15, the House will pass the Build Back Better Act,” he said.
When party leaders announced earlier Friday that the social and environment measure would be delayed, the scrambled plans cast a fresh pall over the party.
Democrats have struggled for months to take advantage of their control of the White House and Congress by advancing their top priorities. That’s been hard, in part because of Democrats’ slender majorities, with bitter internal divisions forcing House leaders to miss several self-imposed deadlines for votes.
“Welcome to my world,” Pelosi told reporters, adding, “We are not a lockstep party.”