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House progressives and moderates united to pass a massive infrastructure deal

Democrats passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, but their larger climate and social spending bill is still in doubt.

House Prepares To Vote On Infrastructure And Spending Bills
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) talks to reporters on Capitol Hill on November 4.
Joshua Roberts/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The House passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill Friday, but did not vote on a sweeping climate and social spending measure as originally planned.

The result was a major step forward for President Joe Biden’s agenda, but a blow to progressives who’ve long pushed for the two bills to be tied together. Progressives were able to extract a commitment from House moderates to vote for the spending measure by November 15, although that pledge came with an important caveat.

The infrastructure bill passed the House 228-206, with 13 Republicans voting in favor. The legislation was a compromise among a bipartisan group of lawmakers and includes major investments in roads, bridges, water quality, and broadband internet. It’s known as BIF — the bipartisan infrastructure framework — because members of both parties have backed it. Because it has already passed the Senate, it now heads to Biden’s desk to become law.

The $1.75 trillion social spending bill, dubbed the Build Back Better Act (BBB), did not receive a vote, however, and won’t be heading to the Senate. It contains historic funding for early childhood care and education and for fighting climate change, as well as key health care reforms.

The House action followed a chaotic day of back-and-forth over the two votes. Progressives have consistently demanded that votes for the two bills — the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the social spending package — be linked. They feared that moderates, who backed BIF, would abandon the spending bill if the infrastructure bill passed first.

To satisfy this demand, Democratic leaders scheduled a vote on both for Friday. This week, however, a group of moderate Democrats, including Reps. Kurt Schrader, Stephanie Murphy, and Jared Golden, urged a delay for the social spending bill until it received a score from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) laying out how much it would add to the national debt.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided to keep the infrastructure vote on the books, and delay the vote on the Build Back Better Act until lawmakers could get more information.

This strategy immediately prompted uproar from progressives, making it appear that the infrastructure vote would fail. Because Democrats have such narrow margins in the House, they can’t afford to lose more than three members on any vote. That gives any group of moderates or progressives the power to hold up legislation.

Biden intervened Friday night, and with Pelosi, offered progressives and moderates a deal. In exchange for progressive votes for the infrastructure package, moderates would pledge to vote for the spending bill, so long as the Congressional Budget Office — which will lay out how much the measure adds to spending and the deficit — finds the measure’s fiscal impact is as projected.

In the end, all but six members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus were willing to take the deal, enough for the infrastructure bill to pass the House with some Republican votes.

The fate of the social spending bill, however, is now uncertain. Moderates are holding out for a score from the Congressional Budget Office before they move forward. And the CBO could find the spending bill would have more than the expected budget deficit impact. In that case, moderates did not say they would commit to voting for the bill, though most of the holdouts did promise to try “to resolve any discrepancies in order to pass the Build Back Better legislation.” Some could conceivably refuse to vote for it at all. In the best-case scenario, a vote on the bill isn’t expected to take place until later this month and then, should it pass, it must still get through the Senate as well.

Of concern to progressives is whether the spending package will stay alive. Without a concurrent vote on the social spending measure, progressives don’t have as much leverage to ensure that it won’t be abandoned entirely.

Previously, Congressional Progressive Caucus leader Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) said that progressives trusted Biden to deliver the support of moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) for the bill. Both senators have demanded major cuts and reworking to the spending package over the past few weeks, and Manchin, in particular, has expressed concern about the cost.

Now, they’ll get a chance to see if moderates in both the House and the Senate actually come through for the legislation, if they’ll continue to whittle it down, or if they will come to oppose it altogether.

Why moderate lawmakers want to know the CBO score

Both bills are quite large. The infrastructure bill will spend $1.2 trillion on roads, water quality, bridges, and broadband, while the social spending and climate bill would put $1.75 trillion toward early childhood education and clean energy as well as key health care reforms. Together, they’d represent nearly $3 trillion in spending spread over several years, that would come less than a year after Congress authorized $1.9 trillion in a third coronavirus relief bill.

Biden has emphasized that the entirety of the $1.75 trillion bill would be paid for with revenue raisers including a new corporate minimum tax, a tax on stock buybacks, and an additional tax on top income earners. An estimate from the Joint Committee on Taxation suggested the measure would bring in about $1.5 trillion in revenue over a decade. That calculation did not include newly added provisions, like policies to cut prescription drug costs and to ramp up IRS tax enforcement, that are expected to bring in further revenue. Progressives have noted, too, that the bipartisan infrastructure bill is not fully paid for and would add an estimated $256 billion to the debt, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Despite this, the scale of the legislation still has moderate lawmakers in both the House and Senate worried, and they’re not fully convinced by the estimates they’ve seen. A Wharton analysis, for instance, found that Biden’s proposed framework could add as much as $2.5 trillion to the deficit if its provisions were made permanent.

Their demands for a CBO score — which would lay out the measure’s effects on spending, revenue, and the deficit — stem from worries that these programs will increase the deficit further, and that the revenue raisers included in the legislation won’t be sufficient to cover these costs.

Moderates have said they’d feel more comfortable moving forward if they knew for certain that the bill would have limited impact on the national debt.

“We have, because of Covid, already spent about $6 trillion roughly, and we need to approach this in a fiscally responsible manner, and the only way to do that is to know how much this package costs,” Murphy previously said.

Democrats are running out of time to pass the Build Back Better Act

It could take as much as two weeks for the House to get a CBO score on the bill, something the Senate is also waiting on for the budget reconciliation process. The deal struck between progressives and moderates projected that CBO data would come by November 15.

Any delays in getting that score could pose a problem for getting the Build Back Better Act passed before the year is over — or even before next spring, when lawmakers will begin to turn their attention to the 2022 midterm elections.

Congress will be on recess for two weeks in November and out again in the second half of December. Should the CBO score come in two weeks, lawmakers would receive it right before leaving Washington for the Thanksgiving recess. After returning from that break, lawmakers would have roughly 10 legislative days left before their winter recess to get the bill through the House and Senate.

Finishing the spending bill is expected to be particularly difficult, given that Democrats haven’t yet agreed on what will be in it. Moderate senators are still pushing back on the size and some provisions in the spending legislation, and have winnowed it down considerably in recent weeks. Progressives in both chambers are working to put provisions that have been stripped out back in, and, as was seen Friday, moderates continue to voice concerns about the overall cost.

Even once the social spending bill passes the House, it will still face a long journey through the Senate. The bill is being advanced through the budget reconciliation process, which allows bills to pass the Senate with a simple majority. Democrats have a one-vote majority, but reconciliation also mandates a bill’s provisions affect the budget.

The Senate parliamentarian, who rules on what is and isn’t allowed in a reconciliation bill, will need to make a decision on what can be included in the bill after Democrats finish their internal negotiations and the CBO score is released. After that, again, as part of the reconciliation process, the bill will also have to go through a step known as “vote-a-rama” in which senators can offer amendments to the legislation and potentially alter it even more.

Once passed in the Senate, it will head back to the House, where lawmakers will need to approve the Senate’s changes.

It’s also important to remember that the spending bill isn’t the only thing lawmakers need to address. On December 3, if Congress doesn’t take action, the government will default on its debts, triggering a potential global economic crisis. If lawmakers don’t pass more funding for the federal government, it could shut down.

And if the House fails to advance the social spending bill, Biden’s full agenda — and all the benefits it hopes to bring — won’t come to fruition, either.