Surface Transportation Programs Extended to Dec. 3 While Budget Reconciliation Bill Gets Refined

Last night, the U.S. House and Senate have both agreed to another one-month extension of federal surface transportation funding authorizations. The new bill (H.R. 5763), a simple and policy-free extension through midnight on December 3, passed the House by a vote of 358-59, and the Senate had pre-cleared the bill by unanimous consent, meaning that the legislation is being sent straight to President Biden for signature. In the House, 213 Democrats and 145 Republicans supported the stopgap bill, while 4 Democrats and 55 Republicans opposed it.

(At 12:35 p.m. today, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the President pro tempore of the Senate, tweeted that he had just signed the bill, and that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had already signed it, and that “now the bill is being flown to Europe to be signed by President Biden.”)

The actual bipartisan infrastructure bill, which House leaders had hoped to pass yesterday, was once again held hostage by various competing groups in Congress. Republicans, many of whom support a lot of items in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, have been lulled to silence by either former President Trump’s opposition to the infrastructure bill or else by grass-roots GOP views that the infrastructure bill is inseparable from the much larger social policy spending bill. (Many Democrats have helped seal the latter view.) Meanwhile, dozens of Democratic progressives refuse to support the infrastructure bill until a much larger budget reconciliation bill providing social spending is nailed down to their liking and publicly supported by all 50 Democratic Senators.

For the second time in six weeks, President Biden traveled to Capitol Hill yesterday morning to make a personal pitch to a closed-door meeting of House Democrats to ask them to support the latest iteration of the budget reconciliation bill. This version was announced in an outline, “framework” form immediately after the meeting by the White House, but Biden did not ask Democrats directly to support the bipartisan infrastructure bill while waiting for the framework to be fleshed out and passed. (That was left to Speaker Pelosi, who asked her colleagues to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill before Biden landed in Rome last night.)

On the spending side, the framework called for around $1.85 trillion in spending, $100 billion of which (for immigration) may or may not be included in reconciliation:

But the framework wasn’t enough detail to get progressives to agree to let the separate infrastructure bill move. Progressives were emboldened when Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) refused to make public assurances that they would vote for a bill embodying the framework. Instead, they issued statements that sounded less than final. (Manchin: “President Biden’s framework is the product of months of negotiations…As we work through the text of the legislation I would hope all of us will continue to deal in good faith…” Sinema: “…we have made significant progress on the proposed budget reconciliation package. I look forward to getting this done…”)

Then, at about 2:15 p.m., the text of a proposed bill implementing the framework was posted on the House Rules Committee website. The new bill is 782 pages shorter than the original version reported from various House committees a month ago (H.R. 5376), and is several trillion dollars lighter. (We still have no official score, but the New York Times recently cited an independent estimate of the original bill as grossing around $4.7 trillion in new spending and tax cuts, while the White House framework document pegs the new agreement at around $1.8 trillion gross.)

But this was not enough to bring progressive votes to the bipartisan infrastructure bill, either. The lack of strong commitment from Manchin and Sinema, along with the realization that the new version is not the final version (a lengthy “manager’s amendment” to the reconciliation bill will still have to be added once the budget score comes in, which may make major changes in the bill), led the progressives to stand strong, and at just after 6 p.m. yesterday, Democratic leaders announced that, instead of passing the infrastructure bill last night and working through the weekend on the reconciliation bill, the House would once again pass a short-term surface transportation extension and come back next week and try again.

At that point, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) went to the Senate floor, asked unanimous consent that “if the Senate receives a message from the House of Representatives that it has passed a surface transportation authorization extension that is identical to the text of S. 3122 that the bill be considered read a third time and deemed passed…” No one objected, so the Senate then adjourned before the House was done debating and voting on the extension.

The reaction from Democratic insiders was not good. From today’s POLITICO: “Democrats slunk out of the House chamber embarrassed — furious at the liberals who dug in and a White House that refused to pressure them to relent — and openly fretting about the long-term repercussions, given the tough climb they face in the midterms.”

The definitive quote from this morning’s Punchbowl News: “This wasn’t just an oversight by Biden either. The White House adopted a deliberate hands-off approach to yesterday’s scheduled vote, Democratic lawmakers and aides said…“We would have had a victory today if only he had asked for it,” one Democratic aide said of Biden.”

Congress will return next week and continue to work to get the budget reconciliation bill to a point where the House can hold a vote on it, at which point the House will presumably also vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Another month seems like enough time to do this without having to pass yet another short-term extension, but Congress tends to group all its deadlines together, and right now, the appropriations deadline, the surface transportation extension deadline, and the debt ceiling suspension expiration are all set for December 3, which unfortunately might attract more delays in the reconciliation negotiations as people realize they can hold up the reconciliation bill in exchange for concessions elsewhere.

Elsewhere in this week’s ETW, we have a summary of the changes in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s portion of the bill, and a summary of the changes to the transportation and infrastructure portions of the Ways and Means Committee’s title of the bill.

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