As Infrastructure Talks Turn Critical, a Warning From Progressives

Annie Grayer, Clare Foran and Manu Raju / CNN
As Infrastructure Talks Turn Critical, a Warning From Progressives Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially said the House would not take up the infrastructure plan until after the broader bill had passed, but in recent days she has effectively decoupled the bills. (photo: Stefani Reynolds/NYT)

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House progressives are headed toward a major clash over the strategy to implement President Joe Biden's domestic agenda, replaying a debate from earlier this fall over the sequencing of key votes and threatening to torpedo a sweeping infrastructure bill in the process.

Top Democrats insist that a framework deal on Biden's social safety net package should be enough for members to vote for a separate $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, but progressives say that is not sufficient to secure their support for the infrastructure bill.

Pelosi and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal emerged from a meeting on Tuesday at odds. Asked by CNN to respond to comments from Jayapal that a framework would not be adequate to vote for the infrastructure bill, Pelosi said defiantly, "I think it is."

Leading up to the meeting, top congressional Democrats had been forecasting that a deal on the larger package would be enough to get progressives on board with a vote on the bipartisan measure this week before key highway funding runs out on October 31.

But Jayapal squashed those hopes Tuesday afternoon. "There are some people who just want us to vote (the infrastructure bill) out on a framework," the Washington state Democrat said. "And I explained why our members don't want to do that."

The differing opinions between Pelosi and Jayapal over the kind of security a framework on the larger spending bill provides raise questions over whether Democrats can realistically bring the infrastructure bill to the floor this week. If Pelosi moves forward on the infrastructure bill with just a framework on the larger spending package -- which is a long way away from bill text and a floor vote -- she would be taking a gamble that progressives will abandon their long-held position that they want both bills to move together.

"It's not enough for me," progressive Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri tweeted Tuesday, responding to Pelosi's comments that a framework on the social safety net package was enough to move forward. "And there are more of us."

Earlier in the day, Pelosi had said she believed an agreement stating that the House and Senate would have to pass the same social safety net bill, with the Senate not being allowed to add any amendments, would unlock the standstill Democrats are in.

"Without an agreement, we don't even have a discussion," Pelosi said ahead of the meeting.

Progressive Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin suggested that Biden could provide progressives with the assurances they need, even though his preference would still be to have a vote in both chambers.

"If the President tells us the votes are there," Pocan said, with the promise of no last-minute votes added in the Senate to change the contents of the bill, "I trust the President, and that would probably match the assurances that we've asked for."

The meeting between Jayapal and Pelosi was one of several high-profile Democratic meetings on Tuesday, a sign that negotiators are quickly searching for an agreement with time running out.

Leaders from five critical House Democratic caucuses traveled to the White House to meet with senior staff on Biden's climate and economic package, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

Senate Democratic leaders hope to get a deal on a framework by the end of the day Wednesday, senators told CNN Tuesday afternoon.

Progressives push for Medicare expansion, drug price negotiation and paid leave

Aside from the process and vote sequencing issues, progressives are warning that their priorities must not be left behind as Democratic leaders race to finalize a deal on the social safety net plan and push for a House vote on infrastructure.

Moderate Democrats, such as Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have been influential in scaling back the overall size and ambition of what will be included in the larger package, much to the dismay of progressives. But if progressives withhold their votes for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the House will not be able to pass it -- a scenario that played out once before at the end of September.

"I'm pissed off, man," progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York told CNN, about how Manchin has had an outsized role in scaling back the social safety net bill. "It's just unacceptable to me that one person from one state can have all this power."

While Pelosi told reporters after a closed door meeting Tuesday morning with Democrats that the social safety net bill is 90% written, major sticking points remain unresolved, including how much it will cost and how to pay for it.

Policy issues ranging from paid family leave provisions to an expansion of Medicare and prescription drug price negotiation have also become flashpoints that have divided progressives and moderates with no clear resolution.

The social safety net package aims to address key Democratic agenda items from health care to climate change to aid for families, but she said all outstanding decisions have to largely be made by the end of the day.

"There's not much more time," Pelosi said. "We have to have decisions largely today. A little bit into tomorrow. So, we can proceed."

Progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told reporters Tuesday that how the massive social spending bill handles both climate and health care will be "determinative."

"I think there are some areas where we feel good about," the New York Democrat said. "For me, the major outstanding pieces are on climate, and on health care, particularly Medicare and prescription drug prices. That's really where I think a lot of us are waiting to hear back on. And it's going to be quite determinative."

Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders said on Tuesday that the bill must include "real" authority for Medicare to negotiate drug prices -- something that has caused major issues with moderates, and that the bill must expand Medicare to include dental, hearing, vision coverage, another sticking point with moderates.

"Any serious reconciliation bill must include real Medicare negotiation to the pharmaceutical industry to lower the cost of prescription drugs. ... Any serious reconciliation bill must include expanding Medicare to cover dental, hearing aids and eyeglasses," Sanders said.

He would not respond when asked by CNN if it was a red line.

Democrats are aiming to pass the social safety net package through a process known as budget reconciliation, which would allow them to pass it in the Senate without any GOP votes. That maneuver, however, means that Democrats cannot afford to lose any Democratic votes in the Senate.

Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, said on Tuesday that she's not giving up on trying to get paid family leave into the bill, another thorny issue that has caused conflict within the party.

"I'm going to continue to push," DeLauro, a close ally of Pelosi, told reporters on Tuesday. "I take it a day at a time, my friends. It's not over until it's over."

DeLauro, a longtime advocate for both the child tax credit and paid family leave, said she hadn't heard much discussion about work requirements or means testing for the child tax credit.

Jayapal cautioned against drawing red lines on whether any particular provision being stripped out would change her opinion of the overall package, and said lawmakers need to wait for the package to be done.

"We just have to look at the whole thing. But obviously, some of the big priorities that we've had are all still on the table."

As much as progressives are fighting to get more of their priorities included in the package, many feel that without their pushing in the first place to keep the infrastructure bill linked to the social safety net bill, none of this extra spending would happen.

"I'll just remind everyone we would have had an infrastructure bill one week and probably have none of this had it not been for a few of us being willing to vote against the infrastructure bill," Pocan said. "And within a week, we've gone from $0 to $1.5 to $2 trillion in the second bill. So you know, we're going to look at it in that context."

Details on billionaire's tax expected Tuesday night

On top of there being uncertainty about whether certain programs are going to make it into the final package, there are still questions over how Democrats solidify how they pay for it.

Sinema opposed increasing the corporate tax rate and the top marginal rate on individuals, which sent Democrats back to the drawing board. In the race to find alternative ways to pay for their massive social spending and climate change package, Democrats are now targeting the wealth of the richest Americans. The problem is most still have not seen the details of the billionaire tax that is being floated.

Pelosi told members in the closed door meeting Tuesday morning that Democrats are still waiting for the language around the proposed billionaire tax from the Senate, according to a source in the room.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters that he still had not seen the language of the billionaire tax.

"I haven't seen it on paper. As a matter of fact, it's not on paper yet," Hoyer said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden told reporters later in the afternoon that there will be details and paper released Tuesday night on the billionaire's tax proposal.

White House senior officials Steve Ricchetti and Brian Deese met with Sinema on Capitol Hill earlier Tuesday, according to a source familiar.

Separately, Sinema is in talks with Senate Democrats, including Wyden, on both the billionaires' tax and a corporate minimum tax, respectively, and is close to agreement on both issues

Prominent moderate says 'we still have work to do'

At the same time, moderate Democrats are also working to assert leverage over the process.

Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, who has been part of the moderate group of members pushing for the bipartisan infrastructure bill to get a standalone vote, told reporters after the Democratic caucus meeting that it's time for members to start selling what's in the social safety net bill, and not focus on what might not make it into the final version.

"There's a lot of good things. Don't look at things that were not included," Cuellar said. "We've got to start selling and there's so much to sell."

Cuellar said Pelosi made her pitch to members in the room, including progressives, that the goal is to focus on the end result of the process.

"I think she was teaching Government 101. Just telling the members, 'Hey, this is the way the process works. It's not what you want. It's what you can get out of the process.' She did an excellent job," Cuellar said.

Cuellar said he was sitting next to a progressive in the meeting who was unsure about voting for the infrastructure bill because of where things stood with the social safety net package and Cuellar relayed to reporters that he told that member, "'Hey, listen, we all went through that. We all go through that, but that's legislation. I mean, that's what you do when you legislate. You look at things and you compromise, not only among ourselves, but with the Senate also."

Leaving a meeting in Pelosi's office on Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said, "We still have work to do" on the social safety net proposal. The meeting was held with members from New Jersey and Virginia -- two states holding elections next week -- to stress the importance of passing the infrastructure bill as well as the larger social safety net package.

"We were talking about the areas where we need to keep moving the ball," Gottheimer said, though he declined to name them. "We're slowly getting there."

"We were all talking about the importance of getting this done now, and that we can't wait any longer," he said.

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