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House approves doomed debt limit extension but hurdles loom

The House on a mostly party-line vote approved an extension of the debt ceiling through 2022 Wednesday, but Republican opposition in the Senate will almost certainly doom the measure.

The vote came amid intraparty division over Democrats’ strategy to address the debt limit and several other high-stakes standoffs bedeviling them this week. That includes averting a government shutdown that will kick in Friday and the fate of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, which was slated for a vote Thursday.

Some Democrats predicted the infrastructure vote would not even happen Thursday.

“Nancy is the best vote counter I’ve ever seen … and she won’t have the votes,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.).

“My advice is to never put a vote on the floor that we can’t pass,” added Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.).

But that vote was highly uncertain at best, with tensions escalating across the Democratic party as Senate centrists once again remained mum on passing their party’s broader spending plan. Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who huddled earlier with Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — has so far said that the vote is on schedule. But senior Democrats say that could change if party leaders huddle with Biden again later Wednesday night, possibly at the annual Congressional Baseball Game.

As Democrats pleaded with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) for more cooperation, Manchin instead declared that “it’s not possible” to have a deal on the social spending bill before Thursday’s planned vote on infrastructure.

Manchin’s statement has only stoked House liberals’ opposition to the bill on Thursday, which they’ve refused to support until the Senate has passed the safety net component of Biden’s agenda.

“His statement has just probably created at least a bunch more votes on the House floor against a bipartisan bill,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said. “I feel very confident that we have the votes [to block it] if the bill does come up.”

The most urgent issue for Democrats, however, is the looming debt limit cliff and a government funding deadline on Thursday. Pelosi stressed to reporters on Wednesday that the party would address both in time.

“We’ll get two of those challenges off the table which are time-consuming … not challenges but requirements,” Pelosi told reporters Wednesday evening.

But even the debt limit vote has led to disputes within the Democratic party, forcing Pelosi and her leadership team to scramble ahead of the Wednesday vote.

In a closed-door meeting earlier Wednesday morning, a furious Pelosi chided roughly half a dozen moderates who had been privately threatening to tank a measure to hike the debt limit, which they saw as a pointless political maneuver with the Senate GOP firmly opposed.

“These members have all voted for this last week. So if they’re concerned about how it might be in an ad, it’s already in an ad,” Pelosi told reporters after the meeting, noting she had little patience for opposition in her own party to the debt measure.

By lunchtime Wednesday, Democratic leaders had struck a deal with those centrists — led by Reps. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) and Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) — to secure the votes for the debt limit raise. In exchange, Pelosi offered a vote on a measure that would essentially create a report card on the nation’s fiscal standing.

The speaker promised those centrists a vote in the near future on a bill from Rice, which would establish a “fiscal state of the nation” report. Sinema authored a companion bill in the Senate.

In exchange, the centrists will back any future vote needed to raise the debt limit — including potentially attaching it to the party’s broader social spending package. The purpose of the dispute, those Democrats privately said, was to remind their colleagues of the political ramifications of the issue back home, and to force a discussion within the party.

Still, the latest flare-up of tensions in the caucus comes as the speaker and her leadership team are struggling to corral votes and are scrambling to hold off a progressive rebellion against Biden’s infrastructure bill, with less than 24 hours before a scheduled vote on the measure and some members predicting the vote will be postponed.

Top Democrats continued to insist the vote was on track, even as Pelosi appeared to once again link the infrastructure bill back to the social spending bill. She told reporters she wanted legislative text of the social spending plan before the infrastructure bill came to a vote so she could continue to move them “simultaneously.”

“I think that if we come to a place where we have agreement in legislative language, not just principle, and legislative language that the President supports … because that’s what we are supporting, then I think we will come together,” Pelosi told reporters.

As Democratic leaders worked to keep their caucus in line on the president’s agenda, they brought in a key Biden ally: Cedric Richmond, a former House member turned White House senior adviser.

“The president is intimately involved in the negotiations. He helped write the bill,” Richmond told reporters as he left the meeting. “He is actively involved and this is important to him.”

But several Democrats have privately complained that Biden is too hands-off in the House as Pelosi and her leadership team struggle to get progressives to rescind their threats to tank the infrastructure bill Thursday.

In her private remarks to a group of Democrats on Wednesday, Pelosi urged her members not to publicly disparage Biden himself as he and Hill leaders worked to unify the caucus behind his two major priorities.

“You can be angry at me, but don’t be angry at the president. The president’s trying to do his best, he’s negotiating,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) recalled the speaker telling members.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the negotiations were at a “precarious and important time.”

But Pelosi’s hands are effectively tied by Manchin and Sinema, who continue to resist efforts by Democratic leaders and progressives to commit to a legislative framework or total cost target for their spending bill.

Liberal leaders, including Jayapal, dug in Wednesday in their vow to vote against the infrastructure bill Thursday unless Manchin and Sinema make those public commitments.

“The infrastructure bill is unlikely to pass on Democratic votes alone,” said Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), summing up the caucus dynamic. “I’m struggling,” he said of his own voting plans.

But Manchin once again dismissed Pelosi’s self-imposed deadline for the vote on Thursday.

“We don’t have a one-week, two-week deadline, I don’t believe, on this. Because everything’s covered,” Manchin said in an interview.

Thursday is expected to be a jam-packed day on the Hill, with lawmakers expected to vote in the House and Senate to avert a government shutdown deadline — on top of the planned House vote on the infrastructure package.

After returning from the White House, Pelosi told reporters they would take things “hour by hour” leading up to the planned infrastructure vote.

“The plan is to bring the bill to the floor,” she said.

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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