WASHINGTON — With House Democrats eyeing the end of the month as the new target to pass President Joe Biden’s sweeping infrastructure agenda, lawmakers and political strategists alike contend the president faces a major climb to coalesce the party’s competing factions around twin pieces of legislation.
The division among Democrats over the size and scope of Biden’s so-called human infrastructure plan has put to the test the negotiating mettle of a president who billed himself on the campaign trail as a dealmaker with more than four decades of experience brokering compromises on Capitol Hill.
Biden is looking to pass his infrastructure vision via two separate packages — a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill already passed by the Senate that focuses on upgrading the nation’s roads, railways and communications systems and a $2 trillion reconciliation bill focusing on so-called human infrastructure, such as increasing access to affordable child care and elder care for working Americans.
To pass both packages before the end of the year, and ahead of the midterm congressional elections, Biden has been maneuvering between the demands of progressives who have been pushing for a series of social spending programs including universal Pre-K, tuition-free community college, and expanded Medicaid coverage for seniors, and the demands of moderates, who have called for a narrower approach aimed at keeping the final cost of the human infrastructure package in the $2 trillion range compared with the $3.5 trillion backed by progressives.
The president’s supporters argue that as a 36-year veteran of the Senate, Biden recognizes the long game of getting opposing sides to reach a compromise, but privately some Democrats have said the president needs to do more to mediate between both sides and get a plan passed soon that Democrats in vulnerable swing districts can immediately tout on the campaign trail.
"It's very challenging because there's a very narrow margin," said Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) of Biden’s need to keep the caucus united. "If you look at American history, when they tried to do big things, there were 20, 30, 40, 50, 60-vote margins. Now there’s just a three-vote margin in the House, and there's no margin in the Senate. So it's very hard because you’ve got to get everybody. It's three-dimensional chess."
As Democrats try to whittle down the human infrastructure package, Suozzi said he’ll support any proposed figure that can pass in both the House and Senate as long as the package includes a repeal of the 2017 cap on state and local tax deductions.
Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) is among the group of centrist Democrats who have argued that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should hold a vote on the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate in a rare 69-to-30 vote in August.
Pelosi had promised moderates within the caucus that she would hold a vote on both packages last month, but ultimately held off scheduling a floor vote after progressives threatened to vote the bill down if the human infrastructure spending package was not voted on as well. Moderates have argued the bipartisan bill is a guaranteed win, having already passed in the Senate, and should not be held up as the broader spending bill is negotiated. But progressives have argued the two bills should be linked to ensure both sets of priorities are passed.
"It’s critical that we pass it as soon as possible," Rice told Newsday about the $1.2 trillion bipartisan package.
Rice said the social infrastructure bill "should focus on making longer-term investments in a select set of priorities," including climate change and expanding the child tax credit that was offered to a majority of families this year, but is set to expire at the end of the year.
"This will allow us to make these programs successful and provide the American people certainty over the long run," Rice said.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in a statement to Newsday said she believes Democrats will succeed in getting both of Biden’s infrastructure packages passed, saying the president "ran on these bold ideas and the American people elected a Democratic House and Senate to deliver them — I am confident that we will."
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a Senate floor speech last week urged Democrats to heed Biden’s message to "find a legislative sweet-spot that we can all support, then we will succeed."
Schumer and Pelosi have set a deadline of passing both measures by the end of October, but Biden, when asked by reporters on multiple occasions about the time frame for passing the bills, indicated that he’s less concerned with a hard deadline as he is with ultimately getting the measures passed.
"It doesn’t matter when — it doesn’t matter whether it’s in six minutes, six days or six weeks. We’re going to get it done," Biden told reporters last month after leaving a closed-door meeting with House Democrats on Capitol Hill.
The president, grappling with declining poll numbers following the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and a summertime uptick in COVID-19 cases fueled by the delta variant, has a lot riding on getting his infrastructure agenda through Congress before the end of the year, said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.
"It's a tough haul because let's face it, the track record for the president's party in the midterms is not good," Bannon said, referring to the party in the White House often losing congressional seats during the first midterm election after winning the presidency.
Bannon said Biden "needs to continue to play the inside game" of bringing Democratic lawmakers together, and focus on selling the plan to the public once the two sides reach a deal.
"You can't do a national televised address every week because it loses its impact," Bannon said.
Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committeeman from Great Neck, said he hoped "in the mind-numbing discussion about numbers and legislative process," that Democrats would not lose "focus on the programs' innovations and services that are going to be put in place with these two bills."
Biden earlier this month acknowledged some of the criticism that had been directed by Democrats urging him to take a more active role in negotiations, but the president, who has held dozens of private meetings with small groups of lawmakers to gin up support for his infrastructure package, said he had been partly sidetracked by his administration’s response to a spate of hurricanes and storms. He vowed to "work like hell" to get both bills passed.
"There's nothing in any of these pieces of legislation that's radical, that is unreasonable," Biden told reporters outside of the White House. "I'm going to try to sell what I think the people, the American people, will buy."