WASHINGTON: Democrats rescued President Joe Biden’s faltering domestic agenda on Friday, passing a giant infrastructure package that is one of the pillars of his $3 trillion economic vision after rebel moderates had earlier blocked a vote on his social welfare expansion.
Despite hours of cajoling lawmakers, party leaders had risked seeing Biden’s two-pronged legislative strategy collapse, as they failed to unite the party’s feuding progressive and moderate factions.
But the breakthrough came, as the lawmakers rubber-stamped the Senate-passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill on the House floor by a comfortable 228 votes to 206.
The passage of the infrastructure spending marks a legacy-making achievement for Biden, amid plunging personal approval ratings and a humiliating upset defeat for his Democratic Party in the Virginia gubernatorial election.
His spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the success was “proof that delivering for the American people is worth all the painful sausage making”.
“Clean drinking water for kids, broadband access, electric vehicles, and biggest investment in public transit. It’s happening. And more to come,” she tweeted.
Party leadership in the House of Representatives began the day aiming to rubber-stamp the infrastructure bill, the biggest upgrade of roads, bridges and waterways in decades, after sending an even bigger social welfare deal, worth up to $1.85 trillion, to the upper chamber.
But six moderate Democrats refused to commit to the “Build Back Better” benefits package, arguing they first needed to see a full accounting of its economic impacts, which won’t be available for at least a week.
With a majority of just three votes in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was forced to postpone the vote on the Build Back Better package, which includes major investments in health, education, tackling climate change and expanding social welfare programs.
Progressives initially blocked the infrastructure vote amid suspicion that Senate centrists would reject the Build Back Better bill as soon as they got their transport upgrades signed into law.
But Pelosi refused to back down, insisting on the vote before the end of the day and offering an olive branch to the liberals, a procedural vote on the “rule” to at least get debate started on Build Back Better.
“I am urging all members to vote for both the rule for consideration of the Build Back Better Act and final passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill tonight,” Biden had said in a late evening statement.
“I am confident that during the week of November 15, the House will pass the Build Back Better Act.”
The victory will be a salve to Democratic leaders who have spent two days in meetings painstakingly trying to bring aboard holdouts over multiple sticking points in Build Back Better, from prescription drug pricing to immigration provisions.
Passing the infrastructure package into law required some tricky mathematics with several progressives, still smarting over the moderate rebellion, voting no, but Democrats were able to add 13 Republicans to their side of the ledger.
“After four years of failed ‘infrastructure weeks’ under Trump and Republican control, President Biden delivered on his promise to work across the aisle and shepherd through a historic investment in our nation’s infrastructure,” Jaime Harrison, chairman of the Democratic National Committee said.
Biden, who spent much of Thursday and Friday on the phone corralling lawmakers, watched the vote in the official residence after strategising with his policy and legislative teams, including Vice President Kamala Harris, according to a White House official.
Pelosi had attempted twice in recent weeks to advance the twin mega-bills but was forced to postpone votes on infrastructure as progressives, unhappy about the lack of commitment to their priorities, refused to pledge their support.
Biden is banking on a bounce from the vote, 10 months after he swept to the White House promising the pandemic-devastated nation he would “build back better”, only to see his popularity plunge.
The infrastructure package passing before the weekend marks an unambiguous, resounding and immediate victory for the 78-year-old former senator, who touts his ability to reach across the aisle.
By funding work on roads, bridges and ports and high-speed internet, the White House says it would create millions of high-paying jobs.
Build Back Better, on the other hand, does not have the Senate’s blessing and is likely to be downsized significantly and put through further arduous votes in the upper chamber, even if it advances from the House.
“It will not be enacted as is. Everybody needs to sit with that and get comfortable with it,” Montana’s democratic senator Jon Tester told Politico.
The votes capped months of tense negotiations on Capitol Hill since the Senate approved the infrastructure package in August, giving it rare bipartisan support in Washington’s polarised political atmosphere.
Most House Republicans withheld their support, however, after former president Donald Trump threatened reprisals for helping to hand Biden a political win.