To get the infrastructure bill passed, House Democrats went looking for trust
WASHINGTON — When Democrats in Congress set out to try to enact President Joe Biden's sweeping legislative agenda, it quickly became apparent that resolving policy differences might be the least of their problems.
The problem was trust.
It quickly brought the process to a standstill, and thawing the tension took days of back-and-forth negotiations, reassurances from Biden, an effort by the Congressional Black Caucus to brainstorm solutions that could appease both sides and weeks of diplomacy overseen by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
At times, it seemed as though they were on precipice of a deal, only for the effort to crumble days or even hours later. Such was the case when Biden arrived to rally the rank and file on Oct. 28. It quickly became apparent that his effort was unsuccessful.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, contacted Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., and suggested that they broker a meeting between Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., a centrist holdout, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who had been leading negotiations on behalf of House progressives.
The four lawmakers met in Schatz's office in the Capitol just hours after Biden's pitch failed to persuade House Democrats to pass his agenda. The 30-minute meeting was a "candid conversation," less about policy differences and more about understanding each other's red lines. It was an attempt to repair shattered trust.
Jayapal was concerned that the Senate was waiting to tank the massive $1.75 trillion spending measure, known as the Build Back Better bill. Sinema didn't understand why progressives were delaying the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
"It went really well, and at the end of the day, Pramila and Sinema were able to build trust in that meeting," said a person familiar with the meeting.
The meeting became the foundation of a newfound trust and ultimately helped get a deal across the finish line, according to people familiar with the meeting. The days of diplomacy that played out afterward — along with the Democrats' disappointing election results in Virginia and New Jersey — produced the formula to get the House on Friday to pass the $555 billion infrastructure bill, which had been stalled since August.
The meeting appeared to produce immediate benefits.
Just days after the Sinema and Jayapal meeting, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said at a news conference that he was still not ready to support the $1.75 trillion plan. Jayapal didn't panic. Instead, she headed out to publicly declare that the plan was still on track.
The statements from House progressives criticizing Sinema stopped, even as she continued to resist some of the Democrats' key tax increases.
It wasn't a perfect truce. Negotiations nearly fell apart at least two more times, according to people familiar with the days of closed-door negotiations.
House Democrats ran into another roadblock hours before they were scheduled to vote Friday. This time, it was because House moderates didn't trust the progressives.
Pelosi announced plans Thursday to vote the next day. But a group of moderates sent a warning letter: They wouldn't support the trillion-dollar spending bill unless they knew exactly how much it was going to cost and raise in new taxes.
The process — which leads to a Congressional Budget Office "score" — is often long and arduous, sometimes taking weeks. Waiting for a CBO score wouldn't make Pelosi's goal of voting Friday possible.
She decided to move forward anyway.
But late Thursday, Pelosi realized that the moderates were sticking to their threat. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and a group of moderates agreed to a meeting with White House adviser Brian Deese, whom the centrists trust, said two sources familiar with the discussions.
A meeting convened first thing Friday morning in Pelosi's office with Deese and moderate Reps. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, Kathleen Rice of New York, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Kurt Schrader of Oregon, Ed Case of Hawaii, Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia, Jared Golden of Maine and Gottheimer.
The meeting lasted hours, and Democratic leaders were frustrated that most wouldn't relent.
The group wanted a complete cost analysis, because they didn't trust passing a blind bill without knowing the price tag, worried that it would end up costing much more than they expected.
Democratic leaders went looking for some way to get everyone on board.
Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, or CBC, texted Pelosi and asked for a meeting. The caucus had an idea and a message it needed her to hear.
Pelosi invited CBC leaders to her office. They presented a path forward: vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill and advance a key procedural vote on the $1.75 trillion plan. While it wouldn't mean passage of the $1.75 trillion package, it would be progress.
"The CBC pushed to make that happen," said Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., who was in the meeting. "Just like we were there to assure the votes were there to elect Joe Biden, we were there to assure his agenda is passed."
It was then that Pelosi realized that after having persuaded the moderates, she was now losing the support of the progressives.
In the meeting among Democratic leaders, Rep. Ted Lieu of California suggested a way to break the stalemate: Could progressives be persuaded to finally trust the moderates if they released a statement promising to vote for the $1.75 trillion plan after the CBO score was released?
The idea of a statement gained traction. Gottheimer started drafting it.
Pelosi emailed the White House to inform it of the plan. Biden called Gottheimer and suggested that he add a date when the moderates would back the $1.75 trillion plan. Everyone agreed to next week.
Gottheimer talked to Jayapal and the moderates. Neguse called progressives, members of leadership and Gottheimer. They ran from room to room where different groups of members were huddled.
The progressives remained huddled in a hearing room. Jayapal had been in contact with Biden, and during one phone call she put him on speakerphone.
Biden told the group that his entire agenda was at risk of collapsing if they didn't move forward and that democracy depended on them. Most important to the progressives, he gave a personal commitment that he would be the "guarantor" of the deal, ensuring that moderates held up their end of the bargain.
After the phone call, Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, the former chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, stood to say that the environment was changing and that "the president really needs us right now."
A delegation from the progressives' meeting, Pocan and Neguse, headed to Murphy's office, where some of the moderates were huddling, three sources said.
Pocan and Gottheimer — who have a history of not always getting along — sat down together at a single laptop and pounded out a statement, said two sources familiar with the meeting.
Jayapal knew six progressives planned to vote against the infrastructure bill — enough to tank it. Pelosi was assured that more than six Republicans, most of whom helped draft the bill, would vote for it. It was enough for her to call the vote.
With a statement agreed to and reassurance that both measures would pass, Jayapal and Gottheimer headed to a camera.
"We're going to trust each other," Jayapal said.