US President Joe Biden exits the West Wing of the White House after meeting senators about the infrastructure bill, in Washington, the US, June 24 2021. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE
US President Joe Biden exits the West Wing of the White House after meeting senators about the infrastructure bill, in Washington, the US, June 24 2021. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE

The House on Friday passed the biggest US infrastructure package in decades, marking a victory for President Joe Biden and unleashing $550bn (Rd 8.3-trillion) of fresh spending on roads, bridges, public transit and other projects in coming years.

The vote was 228-206 and sends the legislation to Biden for his signature. Thirteen Republicans supported the bill and six Democrats voted against it, a sign of the intraparty strains that nearly derailed the legislation. It would not have passed without GOP votes.

Passage capped a day in which Speaker Nancy Pelosi was forced to deal with a last-minute standoff between party progressives and moderates that took hours of intense negotiations and the president’s intervention to resolve.

Pelosi and Biden, however, were unable to land a House vote at the same time on a more than $1.75 trillion tax and spending package that makes up much of the rest of Biden’s domestic agenda. The House instead was set to approve a procedural measure teeing up a vote after lawmakers return from next week’s break and the Congressional Budget Office delivers a cost analysis. 

That was a last-minute concession to a small group of moderates who refused to vote for the spending package without the CBO score. Progressives also made a concession by supporting the infrastructure legislation before a vote on the larger spending package. 

“I’ve spoken to the president a number of times today and the president appreciates that we are working in good faith with our colleagues agreement,” Representative Pramila Jayapal, head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said. “We’re going to trust each other because the Democratic Party is together on this, we are united that it is important for us to get both bills done.”

A statement from the group of moderates including Representatives Stephanie Murphy and Josh Gottheimer said they would commit to voting for the economic package “in its current form” as long as a Congressional Budget Office score is consistent with White House estimates on cost and revenue.

The back-and-forth throughout the day and threats from both factions to scuttle any action, left some lawmakers frustrated.

“We started this day thinking we had a deal, thinking that we were going to cast our votes — were excited to cast those votes,” Representative Jared Huffman, a progressive from California, said. “And then a small cohort of our colleagues moved the goalposts.”

With the vote in doubt for much of the day, Biden made calls to House Democrats and put off plans to leave Washington on Friday for his Delaware home. From the White House, he continued to lobby Democrats well into the night.

The public-works bill totals more than $1.2 trillion when routine highway dollars are factored in. Biden has promoted it as a vital step to taking on the challenge of a rising China, and a test of Washington’s policy-making abilities in a time of sharp partisan divides.

House Republicans argued that it didn’t focus enough on roads and that passing it would “unlock” the social spending bill, which they said would generate inflation.

“The Senate infrastructure bill and the massive tax and spending spree are not the will of the American people. The Democrats’ radical agenda to spend a reckless amount of money will raise costs and make it even harder for people to build a better life,” Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington state Republican, said during floor debate.

Passage of H.R.3684 came after Democrats failed to meet two deadlines in September and October to act on the bill, despite personal appeals by the president.

Success in breaking an impasse between Democratic moderates and progressives — who had battled over the elements of the bigger social-spending and tax-increase bill and the timing of enacting the infrastructure one — may provide a much-needed lift to Biden’s public standing. The president’s ratings have sagged in recent months, with the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, high inflation and the delta variant surge.

Some Democrats blamed losses in statewide elections in Virginia and a close call for the incumbent governor of New Jersey on Tuesday on the failure to enact their promised agenda.

Progressives for months had effectively blocked the infrastructure bill, withholding their support — needed for passage — to gain leverage over party moderates in the fight over the bigger, Democrats-only bill.

The so-called reconciliation bill, providing an expansion of spending on social programs and measures to address climate change along with higher taxes on companies and the wealthy, now totals more than $1.75 trillion, down from an earlier $3.5 trillion.

Progressives had insisted on a deal — or even an actual vote — in the Senate on the reconciliation bill before they’d back the infrastructure legislation. With infrastructure passed, the risk is that liberals will no longer have sway over Senate moderates, who have raised doubts about Medicare, paid family leave, methane fees, nicotine taxes and immigration measures in the other bill.

“I think there’s a major concern,” said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the legislation would be passed before the Nov. 25 Thanksgiving holiday. In their statement, moderates said they would allow for a vote no later than the week of Nov. 15. 

Yet that could delay final action into December, when Congress must grapple with a Dec. 3 government funding deadline and raising the debt ceiling, both of which will spark conflict with Republicans. The Senate is all but certain to change the legislation, meaning the House would have to vote again.

The Senate had passed the $550 billion infrastructure plan on Aug. 10 on a bipartisan 69 to 30 vote. Nineteen Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, joined with all 50 senators who caucus with Democrats to support the bill. 

Among the components of the eight-year public-projects bill:

  • About $110 billion in new spending for roads and bridges
  • $73 billion for power grid upgrades
  • $66 billion for rail and Amtrak
  • $65 billion for broadband expansion
  • $55 billion for clean water
  • $39 billion for transit

The Congressional Budget Office said the bill would add $256 billion to the federal budget deficit over the next decade. For more details, here’s a summary.

(Updates with vote breakdown in second paragraph, McMorris Rodgers in 12th, 13th paragraphs)

Bloomberg. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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