WASHINGTON — House Democrats voted Tuesday to move forward with President Joe Biden's top legislative priorities after resolving a standoff between their leaders and centrist rebels, who threatened to block the multitrillion-dollar safety net expansion.
The House voted 220 to 212 on a key procedural motion to instruct committees to write the $3.5 trillion bill, which can pass both Congressional chambers without any Republican support. To placate the centrist Democratic holdouts, Speaker Nancy Pelosi committed to a Sept. 27 deadline to vote on the $550 billion Senate-passed infrastructure bill.
Every Democrat voted for the measure, and all Republicans opposed it.
Although the procedural vote was a win for Biden, the last-minute clash provided a glimpse into the challenges that await Democrats as they aim to write a sprawling spending bill and pass it with wafer-thin majorities in both chambers. They have three votes to spare in the House and none in the Senate.
"Never bet against Nancy Pelosi," said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn. "Knowing the enormous amount of work that goes into something like this, and in the very narrow margins that we have, it makes her job even more extraordinary. And she also takes all the heat for being the leader."
Before the vote, Biden and his senior staff called a variety of House members, including centrist skeptics, to advocate for Pelosi's plan; they stressed that both the infrastructure and budget bills are critical to his agenda, a White House official said.
'Going to transform America'
Biden praised the vote, calling it progress toward passing his proposals and securing a "historic investment that's going to transform America, cut taxes for working families and position the American economy for long-term, long-term economic growth."
The centrist Democrats, led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., torpedoed Pelosi's plans to vote on Monday. They wanted to separate the bipartisan infrastructure bill from the party-line budget bill, and to make sure the former wouldn't be held up for months while the party sorted out its plan for the other bill on safety net expansion and tax hikes.
"I am committing to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill by September 27. I do so with a commitment to rally House Democratic support for its passage," Pelosi said in a statement. "We must keep the 51-vote privilege by passing the budget and work with House and Senate Democrats to reach agreement in order for the House to vote on a Build Back Better Act that will pass the Senate."
In a joint statement, Gottheimer and his eight centrist allies said they have "established a path forward that ensures we can pass this once-in-a-century infrastructure investment by September 27th, allowing us to create millions of jobs and bring our nation into the 21st century."
A warning from progressives
But while moderate Democrats secured an assured date to vote on the infrastructure bill, that doesn't necessarily mean it will pass the House by Sept. 27 if the larger budget bill isn't done by then.
"As our members have made clear for three months, the two are integrally tied together, and we will only vote for the infrastructure bill after passing the reconciliation bill," Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the leader of the progressive caucus, said in a statement.
At the heart of the standoff is a bid for leverage over the multitrillion-dollar bill. Progressives say they want to pass a sweeping expansion of the safety net, paid for with tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy. Centrist Democrats say they are leery of the $3.5 trillion price tag and more skeptical of some taxes. They're eager to pass the separate infrastructure package into law and bank a bipartisan victory.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., told NBC News that the Sept. 27 deadline "a bit arbitrary."
"Personally, I'm not committing to any date," she said, warning that "if reconciliation is not done by that time," Democratic leaders "absolutely should not" assume she will vote for the infrastructure bill.
"I remain committed to voting on these two pieces of legislation together," she said.
Pelosi held meetings late into Monday night as she faced a mutiny from a group of nine moderates. The lawmakers insisted that the $550 billion infrastructure bill get an immediate vote and be signed into law before they start crafting the larger bill.
"These negotiations are never easy," House Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said as the panel approved the motion. "I think it was Hillary Clinton who says it takes a village. I say it takes a therapist. But the therapy session is over."
The procedural motion also paved the way for the House to vote on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act as early as Tuesday. The legislation would require states with a recent history of discrimination to receive federal "preclearance" to make changes to their voting laws.