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How the House passed the $1 trillion infrastructure plan

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After months of tense negotiations, Democrats in Congress have finally delivered a key part of President Biden's agenda. Just before midnight last night, 13 House Republicans joined the overwhelming majority of House Democrats to approve more than $1 trillion in bipartisan infrastructure spending. Biden celebrated the vote in an upbeat mood this morning at a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Finally, infrastructure week.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: The bill passed after three months of delays and negotiations between centrist and progressive Democrats over how to deliver on the promises their party made to voters last year and after a chaotic day on Capitol Hill yesterday, which saw the infrastructure bill ultimately being passed but leaving a larger social spending package unfinished for now. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has been following all of this, and she is with us now. Hi, Kelsey. Whew - long day.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Thank you for being here.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Of course. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Could you just walk us through what exactly happened yesterday? Democrats went into the day with a plan to pass both bills, and now they've passed only one.

SNELL: Well, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi either thought she had the votes on both bills or she thought she could muscle those votes together when Democrats had no choice but to pick a side on the House floor. But a group of centrist Democrats said they wouldn't support the broader $1.75 trillion spending bill without an official tally to prove that the taxes in the bill would pay for the spending. And members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said they wouldn't vote to approve the bipartisan bill without assurances on the bigger bill. So it was a really high-stakes version of the same kind of standoff that we've been seeing within the party since August.

MARTIN: So just remind us again of how the Democrats wound up in this situation, where they are struggling to pass policies that the president of their own party ran on.

SNELL: Well, some of this is a consequence of the broad coalition that elected Biden. This is a batch of Democrats that represent a fairly wide spectrum of political belief. They all may agree on the ultimate goals - you know, things like addressing climate change and expanding the social safety net. But figuring out how to do that and how much it should cost is a much harder puzzle to resolve. You know, Democrats I talked to yesterday said they were also really shaken by the elections earlier this week, where Democrats saw major losses, like in the governor's race in Virginia.

MARTIN: So how did this week's elections, which were mostly not for federal offices, have an impact on these negotiations in Congress?

SNELL: Well, Democrats I talked to saw it as an indication of how voters feel about the party as a whole. They took slightly different messages from it, though. Progressives said they took the elections as an indication that the party needs to deliver on the entire Biden agenda and pass legislation that people can feel and experience - things like universal pre-K for 3 and 4-year-olds and child care assistance.

MARTIN: And what about the more conservative Democrats?

SNELL: Well, the centrists I talked to said they were really concerned about voting for a huge - nearly $2 trillion - spending package without really understanding how much it would cost and how it might impact inflation or the price of goods that are already rising in the country. Ultimately, Speaker Pelosi had to honor those concerns and delay the vote on the bigger spending bill, and this is how she explained it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: Some members want more clarification or validation of numbers that have been put forth, that it's top line, that it is fully paid for, and we honor that request.

SNELL: And honoring that request means that they have to wait for the information before they can bring the bill up for a vote, and that'll happen sometime before Thanksgiving.

MARTIN: And then what happens with the legislation? You used the word assurances earlier.

SNELL: Yeah.

MARTIN: What happens? What are those assurances?

SNELL: Well, there's still a long road ahead. You know, the Senate is expected to make changes, particularly to the sections on immigration and paid family and medical events if the House can pass this bill. And the process in the Senate could take weeks or more, so the fate is still really unclear. And if the Senate can pass a bill that the House can pass, well, then the House has to pass it one more time, so this is not nearly done.

MARTIN: That was NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Kelsey, thank you so much.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.