House Democrats Hunt for Votes to Pass Biden’s Domestic Agenda

House Democrats Hunt for Votes to Pass Biden’s Domestic Agenda 1

Speaker Nancy Pelosi wanted a vote on Thursday night on a $1.85 trillion social policy and climate bill, but moderates pushed back and action was postponed until Friday.

WASHINGTON — House Democrats are scrambling to line up the votes needed to push through a $1.85 trillion social safety net, climate and tax bill, as moderate Democrats, spooked by Tuesday’s electoral drubbing, have raised concerns about the cost and details of the rapidly evolving plan.

Late Thursday night, Democratic leaders postponed a vote on the measure to Friday, when they also hoped to clear a Senate-passed $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill for President Biden’s signature. A senior aide who disclosed the update on the condition of anonymity said they were confident they could complete the measures by Friday.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California had previously privately told her top deputies that she had hoped to hold a vote on the social policy bill on Thursday night, with the vote on the infrastructure measure Friday morning, according to two people briefed on the discussions.

But even after Mr. Biden and members of his cabinet worked the phones and Ms. Pelosi and her team spent much of Thursday buttonholing lawmakers on the House floor, the votes proved elusive.

With Republicans united in opposition, Democrats could afford to lose as few as three votes from their side. Among the biggest issues were the cost and economic effects of the social safety net bill.

A few centrists were also balking at supporting the package — which includes monthly payments to families with children, universal prekindergarten, a four-week paid family and medical leave program, health care subsidies and a broad array of climate change initiatives — before evaluating the fiscal impact of the latest, hastily assembled 2,135-page version of the legislation.

“There is certainly a lack of trust among some of the moderates,” Representative Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat from South Texas, told reporters. “I want to move the ball forward. But I mean, I still want to know, what are the differences?”

Ms. Pelosi remained publicly noncommittal about a path forward, even as she mounted an intense campaign to rally her members behind the bill. She darted from lawmaker to lawmaker on the House floor, taking pulses and counting votes.

“We’re going to pass both bills,” the speaker told reporters at her weekly news conference. “But in order to do so, we have to have votes for both bills.”

But she found herself up against moderates and swing-district Democrats in no rush to cast a vote.

“We’re reading through the 2,000 pages that we got last night,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey, where Republicans made surprising gains in races on Tuesday. “There’s still changes being made, so we’re going through those, comparing the two versions line by line, which is the responsibility we have to the people we represent.”

Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Mr. Biden made personal calls on Thursday, as did Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, who reached out to at least one Democrat facing a tough re-election.

“We need to get these both done for the American people, as we’ve been saying, as soon as possible,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, the deputy White House press secretary. “We cannot wait here. The American people cannot wait.”

Yet final sticking points continued to crop up throughout the day. Working to appease Democrats who wanted the bill to grant a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented people, leaders included a compromise proposal to instead give them work permits and protection from deportation, a status that would eventually allow the immigrants access to some federal benefits.

But some Democrats in swing districts, worried about their party’s deteriorating political fortunes, resisted allowing them access to any benefits, worried that it might be used by Republicans as an election cudgel.

“We want it as strong as possible,” said Representative Adriano Espaillat of New York, who huddled with other Democrats to discuss the immigration proposals. “Whether I’m up or down on this, we want to see some things in writing.”

Both the social safety net bill and the infrastructure legislation, which carry a majority of Mr. Biden’s economic agenda, have been in limbo for weeks as Democrats tussled over the details. Centrist holdouts, led by Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, demanded that the social safety net measure be scaled back to about half the $3.5 trillion that leaders had initially proposed.

While the Senate approved the $1 trillion infrastructure bill in August, the measure has stalled as progressives have repeatedly refused to supply their votes for it until there is agreement on the other bill.

But the election results from Tuesday confirmed the worst fears of Democrats — who are already worried about losing their slim majorities in the midterms next year — about what would happen if they failed to deliver for voters while controlling the White House and both houses of Congress.

“What I heard loud and clear — and I was walking around with candidates all weekend — was that people want us to act,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “They want us to get things done for them.”

By Thursday, the House’s liberals had fallen in line. Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, the vote counter of the Progressive Caucus, said her members, nearly 100 strong, were ready to vote for both measures.

“We do have the votes,” she said.

Still, with margins so tight in both chambers of Congress, every step of the arduous process has been painfully slow. And voter discontent, while driving their leaders forward, has made rank-and-file Democrats extremely skittish.

“Passing transformative legislation is not easy — it’s hard, very hard,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, who hopes to begin work on the social safety net bill in mid-November. “But the long hours we are putting in, the discussions we have had, some of them quite pointed, will be worth it.”

With Republicans unanimously opposed, Democrats are pushing the social policy and climate measure through Congress under a special process known as reconciliation that shields budget-related legislation from a filibuster and allows it to pass on a simple majority. But Democrats need the votes of each of their senators to pass the bill.

That means senators are likely to change the social policy bill, which heightened anxieties in the House. Ms. Pelosi had promised swing-district Democrats that she would not make them vote for politically difficult provisions that would not pass the Senate; but on Thursday, she was asking them to do exactly that. The immigration measures are likely to be altered or eliminated altogether after the Senate parliamentarian, who enforces the strict reconciliation rules, rejected far broader proposals for a pathway to citizenship.

Supporters of the measures demanded their inclusion.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Representative Jimmy Gomez, Democrat of California, said of the fate of the immigration measures in the Senate. “The important thing is that they’re in when they leave” the House.

Then there was the matter of understanding what was in the bill. In a letter this week, five Democrats — including Representatives Stephanie Murphy of Florida and Jared Golden of Maine, as well as Mr. Gottheimer — urged Ms. Pelosi to grant them at least 72 hours to review the text of the social policy bill and wait for a full analysis from congressional scorekeepers confirming that the bill was fully paid for.

“What I’d like to do is be a reasonable legislator and understand the full context of the bill, as well as how much it’s going to cost taxpayers,” Ms. Murphy said on Thursday.

She told reporters that negotiators were still going over the immigration provision, a plan to lower the cost of prescription drugs and a push led by Northeastern Democrats to raise a $10,000 cap on how much people can deduct in state and local taxes. Late Thursday, a $72,500 deduction cap over 10 years that lawmakers thought had been agreed to was changed to $80,000 over nine years, with an assumed return to $10,000 in the 10th year, which ostensibly raises $14 billion for the bill’s bottom line.

The Joint Committee on Taxation on Thursday released its report estimating that the tax increases in the bill would raise about $1.5 trillion over a decade. But a separate nonpartisan agency, the Congressional Budget Office, had yet to publish a formal analysis of how much the bill would spend or how much revenue would be generated by other proposals, including a plan to lower the cost of prescription drugs and beef up the I.R.S.’s ability to collect unpaid taxes.

Ms. Pelosi and her deputies stressed that much of the legislation has been public, after two months of committee hearings, private talks and drafts. Her office and White House officials circulated separate, preliminary estimates that found that the bill was fully paid for and would help reduce the deficit, a key priority for many moderates.

“By making our tax system more fair and asking the highest-income earners and big corporations to pay what they owe, Congress has put together a package that is fiscally responsible and critical to the future prosperity of our economy,” Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said in a statement.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.