WASHINGTON ― House Democrats finally approved a bipartisan bill late Friday to fix roads and bridges, sending the bill to President Joe Biden’s desk months after the legislation passed the Senate and just days after his party’s disastrous performance in Tuesday’s state and local elections.
But instead of passing the Build Back Better Act at the same time ― a key demand of progressive lawmakers ― the House instead moved to set up a later vote on the broader social spending bill.
Democrats were initially hoping to pass both pieces of legislation on Friday before Congress left town for a weeklong recess. Their efforts were thwarted by a handful of moderate House Democrats who demanded that the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan scorekeeper, first evaluate the fiscal effect of its various tax and spending policies. That analysis is expected to take some time, perhaps several weeks.
The protracted standoff ate up hours of floor time amid grueling negotiations marked with dramatic twists and turns that one lawmaker described as a “clusterfuck.” But the impasse was resolved after House moderates issued a statement committing to support the Build Back Better bill if the CBO completes its analysis by Nov. 15 to show that it will be fully paid for, as the White House has promised.
“We commit to voting for the Build Back Better Act, in its current form other than technical changes, as expeditiously as we receive fiscal information from the Congressional Budget Office ― but in no event later than the week of November 15th,” Democratic Reps. Ed Case (Hawaii), Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), Stephanie Murphy (Fla.) and Kurt Schrader (Ore.) wrote.
By accepting the pledge, progressives are essentially taking a big leap of faith, placing trust in their moderate colleagues to follow through and support the second half of Biden’s agenda at some point in the coming weeks. The CBO could, in the end, find the bill actually increases the deficit, giving moderates more reason to balk. The CBO score may also not be complete by Nov. 15.
The Build Back Better Act would establish universal prekindergarten, expand monthly payments to parents, provide health care to seniors and the poor, and boost clean energy. Its cost of roughly $1.9 trillion over 10 years would be financed via a mix of taxes on the wealthy and corporations, as well as more stringent tax enforcement and savings from prescription drug reform.
The Joint Committee on Taxation, a nonpartisan panel, on Thursday released its initial analysis of the bill, estimating it would raise $1.48 trillion in revenue over a decade and would be unlikely to add to the deficit in the long term. The report was good news for Democrats, even though it did not analyze the effect of expanded Internal Revenue Service enforcement and prescription drug reform, which the White House expects to generate hundreds of billions of dollars more in revenue.
The moderate Democrats wrote in a letter to Pelosi earlier this week that “we cannot lend our support to advancing the BBB Act until we have had a chance to review these scores which provide the true cost of the legislation.” Gottheimer got on board with the legislation after leaders agreed to add a provision partially restoring a tax deduction for state and local taxes.
Since Republicans unanimously oppose the bill, House Democrats could only afford to lose three votes in order to pass the legislation and send it to the Senate. At least five moderate House Democrats are opposed to immediately voting on Build Back Better.
The failure by the House to pass Build Back Better on Friday will further delay its passage in the Senate, endangering Democrats’ broader agenda. Democrats need time to prepare that bill for the reconciliation process, which will allow them to sidestep a GOP filibuster. They can’t begin that process, which is expected to last one week, until the House approves it and sends it over to the upper chamber.
With Congress scheduled to leave town for a week for the annual Thanksgiving recess later this month, and a pile of legislative business awaiting lawmakers in early December, including funding the government and having to once again raise the debt limit, time is quickly running out for Democrats to send that legislation to Biden’s desk for his signature this year.
Biden on Friday urged his party to support both the Build Back Better bill and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which the Senate had passed earlier this summer. The president, who previously deferred to Pelosi on specific vote timing, said for the first time they should do so immediately.
“I’m asking every House member, member of the House of Representatives to vote yes on both these bills. Right now,” Biden said after speaking about the economy at the White House. “Send the Build Back Better bill to the Senate. Let’s build on economic progress, build on what we’ve already done.”
Biden’s more emphatic pleas followed two previous visits to Capitol Hill, where he urged Democrats to coalesce around his agenda.
Hours of painstaking cajoling by Pelosi and her leadership team on Friday failed to convince her caucus to pass the Build Back Better Act. Democrats held open a vote on a Republican motion to adjourn the chamber for over eight hours while they whipped their members, producing the longest-lasting House vote in history.
Still, Biden and congressional Democrats followed through on a major campaign promise by pushing through a once-in-a-generation $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that will overhaul roads, transit, utilities, internet access and more in the name of creating jobs.
Thirteen House Republicans crossed party lines and voted in support of the infrastructure measure, giving Pelosi enough of a cushion on the final 228-206 tally despite six Democrats voting no, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Cori Bush (Mo.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.).