WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Democrats on Monday that passage of the $550 billion infrastructure bill must not wait for President Joe Biden's multitrillion-dollar safety net bill, saying the larger package is not yet ready for a vote.
In a private caucus meeting, Pelosi, D-Calif., said the party must "make difficult choices," because the dynamics have changed and Democrats have not yet agreed to a spending level, according to a source familiar with the meeting.
"I told all of you that we wouldn't go on to the [infrastructure bill until] we had the reconciliation bill passed by the Senate. We were right on schedule to do all of that, until 10 days ago, a week ago, when I heard the news that this number had to come down," Pelosi said, according to the source. "It all changed, so our approach had to change.
"We had to accommodate the changes that were being necessitated. And we cannot be ready to say until the Senate passed the bill we can't do BIF," she said, using a shorthand for Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, the source said.
The remarks represent a significant reversal for Pelosi, who vowed in June that the House "ain't" going to vote on the infrastructure bill until the mega-bill has passed the Senate.
The development indicates that the vote on the Senate-passed infrastructure bill is likely to happen in the House on Thursday, whether or not there is a deal on the separate bill by then, which progressives have demanded to win their votes for it.
But it is not clear that the infrastructure bill can pass the House, even if Pelosi calls the vote.
Progressive House Democrats have threatened to vote down the infrastructure bill if the vote is held Thursday before the mega-bill is completed, fearing that centrist Democrats would seek to shrink or kill the larger bill if the bipartisan infrastructure measure passes.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, stuck by that position Monday evening after the meeting, saying House progressives are prepared to vote down the infrastructure bill Thursday.
"We need the reconciliation bill, and so this is a situation where the vast, vast, vast majority of Democrats want to get the president's agenda done," she said on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show." "It can't be a pinky promise, right, Rachel? It's got to be an actual bill that is written, the legislative text is written, the numbers are agreed to, everything is agreed to."
In her remarks to Democratic lawmakers, Pelosi said the House and the Senate would need to agree on the bigger bill before a vote could be held. That is a tall order, as party leaders have yet to resolve a host of differences among Democrats, who have wafer-thin majorities in the House and the Senate, over policy and the price tag. They have no realistic hope of winning Republican support for the bill.
'Both bills are incredibly important'
Despite her progressive roots, Pelosi has a history of protecting centrist members, who tend to represent swing districts and therefore decide whether Democrats hold the House majority. Her new position comes as centrists, eager to go home and campaign on a significant bipartisan achievement, clamor for a vote on the infrastructure bill.
After the caucus meeting, centrist Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., said the message from leaders was "that we all got to work together and we all got to get it done — and it’s about unity and that both bills are incredibly important."
The battle over the $3.5 trillion price tag centers on Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, centrist Democrats who have insisted that it be reduced. But they have not named their price, which has dragged out the negotiations.
Manchin and Sinema are both expected to go to the White House and meet with Biden on Tuesday, sources familiar with their plans said.
Manchin, asked repeatedly by NBC News on Monday, declined to say whether he would be comfortable with a $2 trillion spending level. He called for means testing and adding work requirements to benefit programs, as well as reducing qualifying income thresholds.
"There are good people that I represent and we’re just concerned about entitlement mentality versus rewarding mentality, and then taking care of those who really can’t take care of themselves. That’s all. But there’s so much good stuff in there that we’re still working diligently," Manchin said.
Manchin also indicated that he would not be moved to support a bigger reconciliation bill if House progressives vote down the infrastructure bill this week. He said he believes it will pass eventually, if not this week.
"I'll guarantee you this: The infrastructure bill will pass before November 2022, before the election," he said. "I'll guarantee that bill will be passed before November 2022."
Democratic leaders face a towering challenge to achieve a deal on the mega-bill by Thursday, which would unlock progressive votes to pass the infrastructure bill.
Biden spoke Monday with Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. The White House said the three leaders "agreed on the need to continue work on advancing the two pieces of legislation that represent the President's vision."
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he believes there is a path to a deal.
"I can't speak to the House, that's Speaker Pelosi's territory," he said on MSNBC. "But in the Senate, I think there's a way, and I think this week may be the pathway."