Infrastructure Battle Gets Surreal At Midnight
After days of negotiating and few signs of progress on passing the Senate's bipartisan infrastructure bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi left Capitol Hill on the cusp of Friday, telling reporters she still believed there would be a vote "today," as she had been insisting all Thursday.
The gaggle of reporters who stuck around all Thursday in case Democrats managed to unite around the infrastructure bill that moderates want and President Biden's much larger Build Back Better legislation seemed to have a hard time processing Pelosi's words, given the day had reached its calendar end.
Just as confusing was the speaker's insistence that the more conservative Democrats, led by Sen. Joe Manchin, and Democrats pushing for the White House's goals were anywhere near close to an agreement on moving ahead with the two bills.
Progressive Democrats have repeated over and over that they will not vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill unless there is also a deal to move Biden's agenda -- with a price tag that they think is too low at $3.5 trillion. Manchin revealed Thursday that his top line number for Biden's bill is just $1.5 trillion.
So, after staffers from the White House, including Biden's head of domestic policy, Susan Rice, had spent the day in talks with Manchin, other moderates, progressives and the Democrat leaders, all with no deal being announced, reporters were eager for any sort of solid update from Pelosi.
Here's how it went:
Q: After these meetings, the sides still seem trillions of dollars apart. How do you bridge the gap?
Pelosi: "We're not trillions of dollars apart."
Q: There's no vote tonight, Madam Speaker?
Pelosi: "We'll have the vote today. There'll be a vote today."
Q: You'll be able today?
Q: "Are you positive about that?"
Aide: "Alright guys, that's it. Thank you."
Pelosi: "We'll see."
Q: You say you're not trillions of dollars apart. Manchin said he's still at one point five, though, so how are you not trillions of dollars apart?
Aides: "Thank you!"
There is a technicality that could make Pelosi's "today" assertion true in a legislative sense. That is that the House never actually adjourned. It only recessed "subject to the call of the chair."
Indeed, the House Clerk's live feed of the House floor still said "Sept. 30" after the House came in briefly Friday morning at 10 and immediately recessed again.
How you square the "not trillions of dollars apart" comment is harder, unless Manchin is telling Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and the White House something other than what he told reports at near 10 pm, about two hours before Pelosi left her office.
Here's some of that:
Manchin: "We just we need a little bit more time. We're getting that time in order to do it. We're gonna come to an agreement. I'm trying to make sure they understand that I'm at 1.5 trillion. I think 1.5 trillion does exactly the necessary things we need to do to take care of our children and take care of our people at the end of life, our seniors, and we're working hard on that."
"I'm still at 1.5 guys, I've been at 1.5. And I want to make sure that people understand, there's an awful lot of good, we can help a lot of people, children on the front end, seniors on the back end, a lot of good things."
He was asked repeatedly about efforts in the day-long talks to raise the ceiling on the size of Biden's package.
He said: "I think it was just basically an open discussion really, again, to where everybody seems to be and we just got to try to move forward."
"I'm sure everyone had aspirations and different things, but we've got, we've got -- there's a respectful agreement -- to understand where we're coming from. I know where they are and they know where I am."
Of course, that doesn't rule out that Manchin -- and Arizona's Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and House moderates led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) -- might soften enough for progressives to move, and that a big deal could be announced Friday. It could happen, and then technically at least Pelosi would be right.
The Senate did set a noon session for Friday, so if Pelosi, the White House and Schumer can get a deal done, it could move quickly.
But if you're looking at body language, Manchin didn't seem to be budging, progressives weren't budging, and Gottheimer, who is usually pretty free with a comment, left Pelosi office shortly before midnight and wouldn't tell reporters a thing.