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'Mutually assured destruction': House liberals dig in on halting infrastructure bill

House Democrats are growing particularly frustrated with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and her negotiating tactics, and the tension spilled out in a meeting.
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WASHINGTON — House progressives are digging in on threats to block passage of the infrastructure bill, despite Speaker Nancy Pelosi's call to pass it quickly this week and tackle the social safety net package next.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the progressive caucus, which boasts 95 House members, told NBC News that "nothing has changed" and that more than half her caucus is prepared to vote down the infrastructure bill if it comes up before the larger tax-and-spending bill has passed the Senate.

The wrangling comes during a chaotic week in which Democrats are locked in a separate standoff with Republicans over how to keep the government funded before a Thursday night deadline and avert debt default before an Oct. 18 cutoff.

The progressive resistance won support from allies in the Senate, as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called on House colleagues "to vote against the bipartisan infrastructure bill until Congress passes a strong reconciliation bill."

"My fear is that if the dual agreement that was reached is broken, and we just pass the infrastructure bill, the leverage that we have here in the Senate to pass the reconciliation bill will be largely gone," Sanders said in an interview.

The intraparty feuding casts doubt over whether the House can pass the infrastructure bill on Thursday, as Pelosi has planned — even though Democrats are united in support of the legislation. The larger bill isn't yet ready for a vote and is still being drafted, as Democrats work through a series of disputes over its price tag and policy.

Image: Congress Works To Pass An Infrastructure and Government Funding Bill
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., speaks to reporters as she leaves the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 28, 2021.Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., said Democrats will get the job done, but "probably not this week."

Some Democrats say they're prepared to vote for the infrastructure bill this week.

"We need both bills. To threaten to vote against one until and unless the other one is ready for 'my' approval is not only hostage-taking but risks backfiring," Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia said. "Because the people who are passionately in favor of the infrastructure bill, if you defeat it, may very well decide, they'll return the favor on your favorite bill: reconciliation."

"We have to understand we're in the situation of mutually assured destruction here. The old 'MAD' — Cold War. You kill my bill, I'll kill yours. And we don't want to kill either one," he said.

But among Democrats in both chambers, there is growing frustration with centrist Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona for rejecting the $3.5 trillion level without specifying what they would support. Some on the left blame them for holding up both bills.

"They need to tell us what they don't agree with, and we need to actually be able to negotiate," Jayapal said.

Sinema draws progressive ire

Sinema, in particular, has been an enigma to many in the House.

At a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday, progressive Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., stood to say that the House doesn’t have a two-senator problem, but a one-senator problem, and the one senator hails from a state Biden won, according to three sources.

It was an unmistakable reference to Sinema. Khanna received applause, the sources said.

Two other Democratic members described the mood within some in the caucus as distrustful of Sinema, a former progressive and House member who has become a centrist, and of her negotiating tactics. They have more patience for Manchin, who won in a ruby-red state that Biden lost by nearly 40 points, and believe he'll get to "yes."

Asked to comment, Khanna said he's less concerned about Manchin than about Sinema.

"We have one senator from a state President Biden carried, from a state where her colleague is 100 percent on board, holding up the agenda of the entire House, of the national Democratic Party. This senator refuses to even give a number," he said. "So here’s my question. When is the Democratic Party going to tell a single senator: 'It's time to get behind our president. It’s time to get in line'?"

In response, Sinema spokesman John LaBombard said, "Senator Sinema does not make decisions based on campaign politics — she makes decisions based on what’s best for Arizona and the country."

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., said there's a lack of trust that the Senate will act after it has ignored many other bills that the House has passed.

"We have to hold fast and strong to make sure that we pass reconciliation in both houses before we move forward to [infrastructure]," he said. "Because if we don't, who knows what reconciliation is going to look like after Manchin and Sinema and others take a chopping block to it."

In a letter to colleagues Wednesday, Pelosi maintained that she wants both bills to pass.

"The change in circumstance regarding the reconciliation bill has necessitated a change in our Build Back Better legislation but not in our values," she wrote. "It would be a dereliction of duty for us to build the infrastructure of America without doing so in a manner that addresses the climate crisis significantly."