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Pelosi faces infrastructure squeeze between moderates and progressives

The conflicting demands put Democrats in a predicament with high stakes for Joe Biden's presidency and the party's political fortunes next year.

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi faces a tightening squeeze between progressive and moderate Democrats over passing two key elements of President Joe Biden's economic agenda.

Progressive lawmakers say they will vote down the Senate-passed infrastructure bill unless it's linked to a multitrillion-dollar social safety net bill that includes expanding health care, paid leave benefits, tackling climate change and raising taxes on the wealthy.

But now, nine moderate Democrats say they won't vote to begin writing the $3.5 trillion bill until the House passes the infrastructure legislation the Senate passed last week and sends it to Biden's desk.

The intraparty fighting is over legislation that, for the most part, Democrats agree they should pass. But the order in which the bills move through Congress has become a battle between moderates and progressives, who are jockeying to maximize their leverage to shape both bills.

For months, Pelosi, D-Calif., has vowed to take the path preferred by her liberal members, which is backed by the White House. But she has a long track record of working to protect the moderate faction of her caucus, whose political futures are likely to determine whether she remains in control of the House.

Pelosi suggested a way out Sunday in a letter to colleagues: The Rules Committee could set up a process to "advance" both measures at the same time. Her deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, said her position hasn't changed: The House won't vote on final passage of the infrastructure bill until the Senate passes the other spending bill, a process that could still take weeks.

But the nine moderates appeared to reject that approach, saying in a joint statement Sunday evening that they appreciated her offer but that their "view remains consistent" on passing infrastructure first.

The group of Democrats, led by Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, includes politically vulnerable lawmakers like Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia and Jared Golden of Maine.

"We simply can't afford any delays," the group wrote. "As Democrats, we remain committed to working with our colleagues to advance the President's agenda, including getting this bill to the President's desk."

The conflicting demands put Pelosi in a high-stakes predicament, with Biden's agenda — and Democrats' political fortunes in the midterm elections next year — hanging in the balance. She is seeking to pass an aggressive agenda with a paper-thin majority and just three votes to lose, seeing no hope of winning Republican support for a multitrillion-dollar budget bill.

Both packages are popular, according to surveys, and Democrats plan to run on them in the midterms, hoping voters will reward them for delivering results.

But they have to become law before that can happen.

The Democratic tension over Biden's economic agenda adds pressure on Pelosi to reverse her position on the sequencing of the votes and allow the infrastructure bill to pass. It comes as growing chaos in Afghanistan has enveloped the White House as the Taliban make rapid gains after a long-anticipated withdrawal of U.S. troops.

While moderates are eager to bank a bipartisan infrastructure victory and get shovels in the ground in their districts, progressives say the $3.5 trillion package is essential to address other national problems. They worry that centrist Democrats won't support it if it's de-linked from the bipartisan bill.

"We can't call people moderate Democrats who vote against child care, paid leave and addressing climate change. That is a Democratic agenda. It is the president's agenda, and it's what we promised," Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the leader of the progressive caucus, said Friday on MSNBC.