A closed-door meeting of House Democrats Friday morning turned into a showdown between lawmakers from swing districts pleading for passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill and liberals in safe Democratic seats insisting that they would not vote yes until the Senate passed an ambitious climate change and social safety net measure.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California convened the meeting with an appeal for unity, telling her troops they could stay strong if they united, according to people familiar with the session who described it on the condition of anonymity. Her lieutenants, including Representatives Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, and Richard Neal of Massachusetts, the Ways and Means Committee chairman, tried to buck up the Democratic Caucus by touting the elements of their $3.5 trillion social policy bill: measures to tackle climate change, bring down prescription drug costs and raise tax rates on the rich and on corporations.
But with two key centrist senators balking at the size and ambitions of that measure, the appeals did not appear to break the logjam. Politically vulnerable Democrats were left to plead with their liberal colleagues to lift their blockade of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which they argued was needed to show their party could govern.
Ms. Pelosi, for her part, said she would not force a vote on the legislation before a broader agreement could be reached on the rest of President Biden’s agenda.
“I cannot and I will not ask you to vote for” the bill, she said, “until we have the best possible deal.”
“And it’s not just me, it’s the president,” she added, according to people familiar with her comments. She suggested the Democrats might hear directly from Mr. Biden later Friday.
But many Democrats were getting impatient. Representative Abigail Spanberger, from a Virginia district that was long held by Republicans before her win in 2018, argued that the party could still fight climate change even without the follow-on climate bill. The infrastructure legislation includes billions of dollars for electric vehicle recharging stations, fortification of the electricity grid to power those vehicles, and projects to make climate-ravaged areas more resilient.
Another moderate, Representative Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, told members the House should stay through the weekend to find a compromise, a sentiment backed by other lawmakers.
Progressives showed little inclination to budge. Representative Melanie Ann Stansbury of New Mexico, a new member who took the seat of now-Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, stood to say climate-warming emissions could only be reduced with the tough measures in the social policy bill to force electric utilities away from fossil fuels.
The meeting Friday came after a late-night decision by Ms. Pelosi to delay the infrastructure vote, an abrupt reversal after she had spent much of Thursday insisting there would be action on the bill that day. Just before 11 p.m., the vote was postponed, giving Democrats more time to reach agreement on the larger bill.
Leaving the Capitol just after midnight, Ms. Pelosi told reporters “we’re not trillions of dollars apart” and vowed “there will be a vote today” on the infrastructure measure.
The public works bill, which would provide $550 billion in new funding, was supposed to burnish Mr. Biden’s bipartisan bona fides. It would devote $65 billion to expand high-speed internet access; $110 billion for roads, bridges and other projects; $25 billion for airports; and the most funding for Amtrak since the passenger rail service was founded in 1971. It would also accelerate a national shift toward electric vehicles with new charging stations and fortifications of the electricity grid that will be necessary to power those cars.
But Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington and the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and other progressive leaders for weeks had said they would oppose it until they saw action on the legislation they really wanted — a far-reaching bill with paid family leave, universal prekindergarten, Medicare expansion and strong measures to combat climate change.
“Nobody should be surprised that we are where we are, because we’ve been telling you that for three and a half months,” Ms. Jayapal said.