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Pelosi, the moderates and the progressives: Speaker's shifting alliances as she pushed Biden's spending plans

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi set the chamber up for a vote Friday on Democrats’ massive reconciliation spending bill, leaning on a handful of reluctant moderates who wanted a chance to analyze Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scores first. 

“We will vote on the rule and then on the bill, those votes hopefully will take place later this afternoon,” Pelosi said Thursday ahead of any release of that information. Pelosi was backed by Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who said she wanted a vote either Thursday night or first thing Friday morning. 

The effort represents just the latest stage in Democrats’ monthslong saga trying to pass both an infrastructure bill and a reconciliation bill, with Pelosi pushed and pulled between progressives and moderates in her own party. It was just earlier this month Pelosi was steamrolling progressives to get the moderate-backed infrastructure to President Biden’s desk. 

“At the end of the day, things change, situations change,” R Street Institute senior fellow James Wallner said of Pelosi’s rapidly changing alliances. “What lawmakers are concerned about is outcomes, and they think about this is – anything is OK as long as it gives you that outcome… They’re just changing their means to reach the same ends.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., meets with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., meets with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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An examination of Pelosi’s statements and positions going back to June reveals a leader who’s been happy to change her approach over and over as she works with warring factions of her party to pass some of the most expensive bills in American history.

Early summer

Even before there was a deal on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, Pelosi was definitively on the progressives’ side.

“Make sure you understand this… there ain’t gonna be no bipartisan bill unless we are going to have the reconciliation bill,” she said on June 24. 

The potential that the House might not take up infrastructure barring progress on reconciliation loomed over the Capitol for much of the summer. 

Late summer

Fractures between Democrats started opening in earnest in August, shortly after the Senate passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill. 

Pelosi maintained that the Senate should produce a reconciliation bill before the House would take up infrastructure. But a group of nine moderates led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., started pushing for a “standalone” vote on infrastructure with a letter they circulated the weekend of Aug. 7. 

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“Some have suggested that we hold off on considering the Senate infrastructure bill for months – until the reconciliation process is completed. We disagree,” they said later that week. “We will not consider voting for a budget resolution until the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passes the House and is signed into law.”

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., arrives for a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus on the infrastructure bill in the U.S. Capitol on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., arrives for a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus on the infrastructure bill in the U.S. Capitol on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Pelosi warned Democrats that the budget resolution should pass “without drama.” But the moderates had the numbers to block it. They came under intense pressure from Pelosi before eventually caving. The moderates agreed to vote for the budget resolution in August in exchange for a vote on the infrastructure bill in late September. 

Late September

But the next month it was time for a role reversal. 

“I told all of you that we wouldn’t go on to the BIF [until] we had the reconciliation bill passed by the Senate. We were right on schedule to do all of that, until 10 days ago, a week ago, when I heard the news that this number had to come down,” Pelosi told her caucus on Sept. 27. “It all changed, so our approach had to change… And we cannot be ready to say until the Senate passed the bill, we can’t do BIF.”

Pelosi was trying to hand Biden a win and make good on her deal with moderates and pass infrastructure. But the Congressional Progressive Caucus hit back, saying, “We need the Build Back Better Act passed in the Senate before we can vote on infrastructure… Progressives haven’t wavered yet, and we have no plans to do so now.”

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Pelosi nevertheless tried to plow through the disagreement, working late into the night on Sept. 30 to come to a deal on a framework for reconciliation that could allow infrastructure to pass. But Democrats couldn’t come to a deal, and progressives held firm against the infrastructure bill.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, updates reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. 

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, updates reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“I’ve never been as proud of @USProgressives as I am in this moment,” Jayapal said on Oct. 1 after their win over Pelosi. 

But Wallner said that delay was eventually key to infrastructure passing first. 

“I don’t think that the New York mayor’s race turned on the… House not passing infrastructure, or tying it to a reconciliation bill… The New Jersey race, the Virginia race, these races weren’t about that,” Wallner said. “But the way we interpret it matters. And so far as members of Congress, they’re interpreting it as if it was about them, and it was about the kind of overreach of the progressives.” 

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Late October, early November

Biden changed things on Oct. 28 when he released a $1.75 trillion reconciliation framework that was promptly turned into legislative text. Progressives and moderates each demanded some changes, which Democrats made before Pelosi tried one more time to pass both bills simultaneously the first week of November. 

“We are proceeding with transformative legislation to drive historic progress For The People, For The Children and For The Planet!” Pelosi said on Nov. 4. 

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But by the morning of Nov. 5, it was clear there were enough moderates who wanted CBO scores for reconciliation and wouldn’t vote for it without them. Because the scores would take significant time, this meant reconciliation was off the table. 

Yet with Democrats desperate for legislative win, Pelosi pushed ahead and declared Democrats would pass infrastructure only that day, enraging progressives. But after a group of moderates signed a statement saying they’d vote for reconciliation if the CBO scores checked out, the House voted and infrastructure passed with only a handful of “Squad” members opposed. 

“Pelosi ended up, you know, I think she had enough information at that point, and she basically called the bluff of the progressives,” Wallner said. 

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Of her reversals between pushing for both bills at the same time, then for infrastructure first, then for both, then for infrastructure, Wallner said, “That’s not hypocritical.” 

“I think from a leader’s perspective, their policy preferences kind of recede into the background. And what they’re really concerned about is just success in any shape or form that they can sell, that they can then claim credit for and win elections,” Wallner said. “And so you just change whatever it is you need to do to get wins.” 

Even if reconciliation passes the House Friday, Democrats will still have a long road ahead of them. The bill still needs to pass the Senate, where some moderate Democrats are very suspicious of its gaudy price tag. 

Fox News’ Jacqui Heinrich and Kelly Phares contributed to this report.  

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