The showdown is over what supporters say is the most significant legislation in generations to help working Americans access child care, education and health care. The measures are not only critical to Biden; they would crown Pelosi’s own legacy toward the end of a pioneering career that, until Kamala Harris became vice president, made her the highest-ranking woman in US political history.
The California Democrat is in her second turn with the gavel, after going head-to-head with Republican President George W. Bush after becoming speaker in 2007. Her role enacting economy-saving legislation during the 2008 financial crisis and driving President Barack Obama’s agenda into law, including the Affordable Care Act, made her one of the dominant political figures of the early 21st century. But as she tries to pass trillions of dollars in infrastructure and social spending, Pelosi is now in what looks like an impossible situation.
“I wish Nancy Pelosi well. She has defied a lot of common belief and come through in the past when she’s faced these challenges,” Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday.
“I’m not going to gainsay her situation now.”
No margin for error
The speaker has several huge problems as the critical vote, which she scheduled to placate moderate Democrats who view it as crucial to their reelection hopes next year, looms.
First, she has almost no margin for error in the House. The tiny Democratic majority means she can only lose three votes. Almost every lawmaker in a restive and ideologically diverse caucus must be on board for everything and there can be few opt-outs for lawmakers who fear tough votes that could end their careers.
Second, Pelosi’s writ only runs on the House side of Capitol Hill. The current stalemate over Biden’s priority bills is pitting her against several moderate senators in a chamber that Democrats control with an even slimmer majority than she has in the House, meaning any one senator can kill any bill. If it does prove impossible to eventually pass the two bills, and Biden’s domestic agenda crumbles, the last few fraught weeks will become a lesson in the futility of trying to pass transformational laws with such tiny majorities.
Pelosi’s capacity to get her own caucus in line has been thwarted by progressives who see passing the $3.5 trillion spending bill as an existential moment for their movement and sense a moment of historic leverage.
At the root of the problem for Pelosi, who huddled at the White House with Biden and Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday, is a complicated mechanism for passing the bills that she helped construct. The idea was to offer progressives an incentive to vote for the infrastructure bill, which they consider far too small, by linking it with the spending package. And moderates were thought to be so keen to see the infrastructure bill enacted that they would hold their noses and vote for the much larger spending bill.
But now, Pelosi is effectively trying to uncouple that formula by bringing up the infrastructure bill for a vote on Thursday — even though it’s unlikely to pass as progressives defect and House Republicans largely refuse to make up the difference for what was crafted as bipartisan legislation. It’s a move that could imperil the centerpiece of Biden’s bid to convince Americans that even in scorched earth Washington, Democrats and Republicans can work together. Sticking to the timetable for the Thursday vote was apparently designed to crank up leverage on senators to come to an agreement on the larger spending package. But the wager has so far failed.
There is no chance the Senate will pass the spending bill and therefore give assurance to progressives who are waiting for it in the House by Thursday. In fact, Senate Democrats can’t even agree what will be in it, how much it should cost and when it should pass. With progressives standing firm, that means there is almost no scenario in which Pelosi will have the votes to pass the infrastructure package on Thursday — especially since GOP leaders have launched a bid to convince those of their members who support it to vote against it to deny Biden a significant achievement.
Frustration with senators
“We don’t have choices to make yet because we don’t know what the choices are,” Pelosi said on Wednesday. Her comments were heard by Manchin, who issued a rather scathing response to the question that has preoccupied Washington for weeks as the drama over Biden’s agenda has unfolded. What does he want?
“I would never ever think about telling Nancy how to (do) her operation. She knows what she’s doing,” Manchin told reporters. But the West Virginian’s gambit late Wednesday appeared to make Pelosi’s already vexing position even more difficult, as progressives signaled it had only stiffened their resolve.
“I can tell you that his statement has just probably created at least a bunch more votes on the House floor against a bipartisan bill,” Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said.
There are believed to be several dozen progressives in the House who are committed to voting down the infrastructure bill if they don’t at least get assurances on the makeup of the spending measures. And they seem immune to any effort by Pelosi to persuade them otherwise. They include Rep. Cori Bush, a progressive from Missouri who defeated a longtime Democratic incumbent in a primary last year. “I’m an absolute no. You can write on the wall with Cori Bush tomorrow — I’m a no,” Bush said.
All of this raises the possibility that Pelosi will either have to pull the bipartisan infrastructure bill or do something she never does — put a piece of legislation on the floor that she knows she doesn’t have the votes to pass.
So far, Pelosi insists that the vote will go ahead. “The plan is to bring the bill to the floor,” she told CNN’s Manu Raju after returning from the White House Wednesday evening. But progressives are not so sure, hours ahead of one of the most fateful days for any President’s legislative program in modern history.
“I have a feeling that it will be delayed,” Jayapal said on “Erin Burnett OutFront” on CNN.
No one knows if or how Pelosi will get out of her current political vise and effectively save Biden’s domestic legacy. If she eventually manages to do so, the two bills will likely rank as the greatest achievement of a historic Washington career.