The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After months of setbacks, Biden finally gets long-sought win on infrastructure

President Biden celebrated his administration’s infrastructure deal on Nov. 6, the morning after Congress approved the $1.2 trillion bill. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post)
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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was furious with the White House over President Biden’s remarks in a meeting with House Democrats. Biden’s party was walloped on Election Day. His legislative agenda was in jeopardy. His languishing approval ratings had plunged to a new low.

But then late Friday, Biden helped clinch passage of a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill — stepping up his pressure on House Democrats after months of standing back from the debate. Spurred in part by the humbling electoral losses, Biden made personal edits to a written statement aimed at forging compromise and publicly and privately urged members to vote for the measure — all amid a flurry of phone calls with Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The long-sought legislative win came hours after a positive jobs report and encouraging news about an experimental drug to treat covid-19, capping the most topsy-turvy week of Biden’s presidency. On Saturday — after months of absorbing a series of blows that many Democrats felt were largely self-inflicted — Biden at last had something to celebrate.

“Finally — infrastructure week!” he said with a chuckle at the start of a speech at the White House. “I’m so happy to say that — infrastructure week.”

“Yesterday, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that we took a monumental step forward as a nation,” he continued.

The events leading up to the pivotal House vote were described by White House officials, lawmakers, congressional aides and other people with knowledge of the situation. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity to more candidly discuss private talks.

Despite the celebratory mood in the White House, it’s far from clear that the bill’s passage and the developments in the economy and the pandemic will solve the problems that have plagued Biden since the late summer. Dismal approval ratings, Democratic worries that he is too insular, struggles promoting his accomplishments, and foreign and domestic upheaval clashing with his campaign promises of calm and competence loomed over Biden’s momentary victory lap.

So did lingering distrust among Democrats, as well as uncertainty about the path forward on a massive social spending bill Biden will try to push to the finish line next in the face of several pitfalls. Some in the party have long felt Biden’s challenges cannot be overcome with the stroke of a pen and have more to do with how he has approached his job.

But what Biden made plain was that with his presidency on the ropes, he felt a new sense of urgency to produce legislative results, and a willingness to accept greater risk in pursuing them. Tuesday’s gubernatorial defeat in Virginia and other election setbacks caused frustration and created something of a call to action, according to a White House official, creating fresh momentum to move the agenda forward.

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a close Biden ally, spoke to the president and his top aides in the aftermath of Election Day, imploring them to crank up their efforts. “I told all of them that I thought that we had reached make-or-break time and it was time for the president to throw down a marker,” he said in a Saturday interview.

Clyburn recalled telling Biden he thought lawmakers had not yet developed the will to act and that the president could help. “He said, ‘I’m on it,’ ” Clyburn recounted, adding that the president asked for names of people to call.

By Friday evening, Biden did something he hadn’t done throughout the many months of talks. He issued a public statement calling on all members to vote to pass the infrastructure bill “tonight” and advance the social spending bill with an eye on passing it later.

House lawmakers passed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill on Nov. 5, sending it to President Biden to be signed into law. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images/Reuters)

For months, Biden has labored through long negotiations over his domestic agenda, taking a punishing toll on the party’s ability to showcase tangible achievements to voters, many Democrats have said.

Infrastructure win in hand, Democrats brace for next battle over $2 trillion social spending legislation

“We’ve been at first and goal for months and you want me to sell the drive,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.). “I want to sell the touchdown.”

Often, Biden was unwilling to try to pressure recalcitrant liberal House members to vote on infrastructure separately from the social spending bill, even as some allies wanted him to try. The liberals had sought to use the Senate-passed infrastructure bill as leverage to ensure their social program priorities wouldn’t be left behind.

That cautious approach eventually created friction at the highest levels of the party. After Biden visited Capitol Hill on Oct. 28, Pelosi and her team grew livid that he hadn’t seized the moment to ask House Democrats to immediately vote on infrastructure, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation. They made it known to the White House that they were unhappy, one of the people said.

Biden departed for international summits in Europe after that meeting. The sense of impending doom followed him abroad.

On the sidelines of a climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, Biden exchanged pleasantries with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who asked him how he was doing. “So far, so good,” Biden replied. He added: “There’s this old joke. A guy jumps off [a] 100-story building. As he passes the 50th floor they asked him how he’s doing. And he says, ‘So far so good.’ ”

The president returned to the United States just as Republicans were celebrating election victories in Virginia, a state Biden won by 10 points, and other blue states. Biden concluded in public remarks the next day that “people want us to get things done.”

Biden and Pelosi spoke daily from Wednesday to Friday as the House eyed passing both the infrastructure bill and the social spending package. But on Thursday, it became clear that about a dozen moderate Democrats were not ready to vote on the latter after a number of assurances they had received were pulled back.

Pelosi gave Biden a list of names to call Thursday evening, prompting the president to work the phones in hope of getting some members enough assurances to vote yes, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

Biden and Pelosi spoke four times Friday and in one conversation Pelosi told him that House Democratic leadership had agreed to a recommendation by the Congressional Black Caucus to vote on the infrastructure bill first and a procedural rule outlining debate for final passage of the social spending plan that day, recognizing the votes were not there yet on the latter plan.

13 Republicans who voted for infrastructure bill now face a backlash

But that angered members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who worried about losing leverage on the social spending plan. They threatened to tank a procedural vote that would have stopped consideration of the infrastructure bill that day, leaving the vote open for hours.

Biden, who had carefully navigated the divisions in the House Democratic caucus, would have to intervene on both sides. While the action was unfolding on Capitol Hill, the White House became a critical nerve center.

As an agreement took shape to have moderates and liberals sign off on statements signaling their support to pass the infrastructure bill and eventually the social spending plan, Pelosi called Biden again to inform him about the emerging language by moderates and suggested that he connect with Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) again to tell her about it.

A crucial moment arrived when the president got on a call with Jayapal, and she put him on speakerphone to address her caucus and have a thorough conversation with them, according to two people familiar with the conversation. Jayapal said the president’s message was to lay out how liberals could come to the table and move both of his priorities forward.

Biden also impressed upon Jayapal that they should not just trust the moderates’ commitment to passing the social spending plan in two weeks, but also his word in ensuring it would happen.

Holed up with boxes of pizza, Dove ice cream bars and Coca-Cola in the White House residence Friday evening, Biden huddled with top aides, including Ron Klain, his chief of staff; Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president; Louisa Terrell, director of the office of legislative affairs; Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council; and Susan Rice, director of the Domestic Policy Council, as they monitored the negotiations on Capitol Hill behind the scenes and on C-SPAN.

At one point, Biden interjected during a phone call between Ricchetti and Rep. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), one of the moderate Democrats who expressed concerns about supporting the social spending bill before reviewing a full financial analysis of its spending programs. The president urged Gottheimer and his colleagues to specify when they would agree to a vote on the social spending plan, according to a person familiar with the call.

Ultimately, Biden’s suggestion was heeded, and the moderates wrote they would vote no later than the week of Nov. 15.

On his third call with Pelosi, she urged the president to release his own statement calling for immediate passage of the plan, which he did before moderates and liberals released their own statements. The timing of the president’s statement was decided by the White House, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

When the vote finally started at 10:55 p.m., Biden and his aides tuned into C-SPAN to watch. Once it hit the critical threshold of 218 votes, though, they broke out into cheers, handshakes and some hugs, mirroring similar reactions by House Democrats celebrating on the floor. Biden had wanted to address the nation right after the vote passed, but staff determined he should wait until the morning. He made some celebratory calls, including his last call of the day to Pelosi, and staff left before gathering again early Saturday morning.

The vote came at a moment of high tension inside the White House. Aides said the president has grown increasingly short-tempered. Over his three decades in national politics, Biden has been known to scream at staff on occasion, but Biden aides said since he has become president, the yelling has become more frequent and directed at a wider audience of staff.

Tensions were also running high between the White House and Capitol Hill. On top of Pelosi’s anger with the White House last week, frictions ramped up between the speaker and Jayapal. Some Democrats on the Hill also expressed frustration with Klain, who they said had empowered Jayapal and her caucus at the expense of the rest of the party. Klain speaks regularly with a range of members, including moderates such as Gottheimer, a White House official said.

Biden’s persistence pays off as infrastructure deal crosses the finish line

Democrats hope those clashes will simmer, but they threaten to reemerge in the weeks ahead. The White House continues to negotiate with Democrats over the social spending bill, which now must survive complex ideological battle lines in the House and Senate. As they do that, they plan to ramp up efforts to sell the infrastructure bill to the American public, which will be closely watched in the party.

A White House official said Biden will lead efforts to communicate the policies included in the plan and their effect on Americans’ lives. He will be joined by a coterie of Cabinet officials.

But some Democrats remain anxious about the White House’s ability to explain the plan and ultimately win credit from voters. After Biden signed the coronavirus relief package into law in March, White House officials outlined a similar strategy to sell that legislation. Many Americans remain unfamiliar with the plan, according to polls and interviews with Democratic strategists.

“I was always taught that there were two kinds of sins — the sin of commission and the sin of omission. And I think the sin of omission was present after we passed the rescue act,” Clyburn said.

Some Democrats said the party needs to use this moment to regroup more broadly.

“What we need to learn to do is be much more disciplined and focused in our approach,” said Rep. Susan Wild (Pa.), one of the Democrats most endangered in November’s midterm elections. “We need to really focus on the issues that are important in our districts. We’ve got to stop being so focused on what the GOP is saying and develop our own message.”

Annie Linskey in Glasgow, Scotland, and Ashley Parker and Michael Scherer in Washington contributed to this report.