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Biden and House Democrats unite behind his agenda, but they say more time is needed

President Biden walks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as he arrives Friday for a meeting with House Democrats to discuss their spending agenda.
Jacquelyn Martin
President Biden walks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as he arrives Friday for a meeting with House Democrats to discuss their spending agenda.

Updated October 1, 2021 at 9:59 PM ET

After meeting with House Democrats at the Capitol on Friday, President Biden said it may take days or even weeks for Democrats to come to agreement on voting for a bipartisan infrastructure bill and for a separate package that covers most of his legislative agenda, including climate, childcare, education and other social spending.

"It doesn't matter whether it's in six minutes, six days or six weeks, we're going to get it done," the president said to reporters.

He did not elaborate on what was discussed inside the closed meeting.

Later Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wrote in a letter to colleagues that "more time is needed to complete the task" of forging an agreement among Democrats on their larger spending measure.

A House vote on the infrastructure bill, which has passed the Senate, has been held up pending an agreement on that larger spending package. Late Thursday, Pelosi and her leadership team had delayed a vote on the approximately $1 trillion measure.

"Clearly, the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill will pass once we have agreement on the reconciliation bill," Pelosi wrote in her letter. The latter would have to be passed via a process known as reconciliation to avoid a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Democrats stress unity

As Democratic lawmakers left the meeting with the president Friday, they indicated there was wide support for the infrastructure measure, but also an understanding that it would take some time before that bill comes to the floor.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said he got two messages out of the meeting: "Please compromise. This is the most transformational thing we're going to be able to do for this country," he said. "But [Biden] has no confidence that if we try to pass [the infrastructure bill] bill first, that the reconciliation [bill] will also pass."

After weeks of stories about Democrats in disarray, Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., stressed that the caucus is united. "Failure is not an option, that's what [Biden] spelled out. We've got to work together. And we will," she said.

However, centrist Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, who had hoped for a vote on the infrastructure bill, said in a statement late Friday that she was "profoundly disappointed and disillusioned by this process."

Pelosi said she was taking things 'hour by hour'

The infrastructure bill was negotiated this summer by a bipartisan group of senators and the White House. The Senate approved it in August, with 19 GOP senators joining all Democrats in the vote in the upper chamber.

Ahead of Thursday's expected vote, Pelosi told reporters she was taking things "hour by hour" to decide what to do on the measure. A steady stream of members from across Democrats' ideological spectrum shuttled in and out of her suite of offices in the Capitol on Thursday.

Democrats' slim margin in the House meant Pelosi had little room for error. She balanced demands from progressives, who vowed to defeat the bill unless there was a broader deal on the separate $3.5 trillion package, and moderates, who argued the Democratic majority on the Hill needed to deliver a win on a key part of their agenda.

The speaker told reporters early on Thursday, "I'm only envisioning taking it up and winning it."

Her pledge to move infrastructure in tandem with a spending package split the caucus

Pelosi worked to get a framework on the larger spending bill that the president, progressives and Senate centrists could agree on so that all factions could point to something both chambers would advance in the next several weeks.

"You know that thing with the white smoke in the pope. It's like, that's what people are waiting for," Rep. Ann Kuster, D-N.H., told reporters after one session with the speaker.

Pelosi initially insisted that the infrastructure bill would move in tandem with the larger spending package. That pledge split her caucus. Centrists from purple districts pushed for a House vote to send the measure funding so-called hard infrastructure projects to Biden's desk, and progressives insisted they could not support moving his "Build Back Better" agenda in a piecemeal fashion. They said an agreement between both chambers on the details of the broader spending bill, which includes major programs addressing health care, climate change and education priorities, was the only way to move forward.

Pelosi then backed off her insistence that the House wouldn't vote on the bipartisan bill focused on hard infrastructure for things like roads, bridges, transit systems until the reconciliation package was approved by the Senate.

Leading House liberals reiterated that they couldn't vote for the $1 trillion measure until they had an "iron clad" agreement with Senate centrists Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. — who said they couldn't accept a package with a $3.5 trillion price tag — with details about what the two of them would support.

Sen. Manchin says he would support a far smaller spending package

Manchin told reporters he could back a $1.5 trillion package — far less than most House and Senate Democrats wanted. He has been pressing for a smaller package for weeks.

"I'm willing to sit down and work through that 1.5," Manchin said. Referring to progressives who wanted more than double that amount, he said "they can come back and do later, and they can run on the rest of it later. I think there's many ways to get to where they want to, just not everything at one time."

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, continued to warn that moving forward with a vote on the infrastructure bill without an agreement on the reconciliation package would mean dozens of progressive Democrats would vote no and take the bill down.

The infrastructure bill contains $550 million in new spending over the next five years. It focuses on a range of projects, including over $100 billion for roads and bridges, over $60 billion for rail systems, $25 billion for airports, $65 billion for broadband, over $50 billion for clean drinking water projects.

NPR's Alana Wise contributed reporting. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Caitlyn Kim