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Democrats about to walk budget tightrope in House

Leadership struggling to bridge divide between moderates, progressives on $3.5T budget package, infrastructure

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly vowed to hold the infrastructure bill in the House until the Senate also passes the reconciliation package.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly vowed to hold the infrastructure bill in the House until the Senate also passes the reconciliation package. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House leaders have a week and a half to untangle a mess of competing Democratic priorities or else their party’s entire economic agenda may collapse. 

The House is scheduled to return the week of Aug. 23 to vote on the fiscal 2022 budget resolution, which the Senate adopted early Wednesday on a 50-49, party-line vote. 

But at least eight to 10 moderate House Democrats are privately expressing a willingness to vote against the budget if Speaker Nancy Pelosi does not schedule a vote on the Senate-passed, bipartisan infrastructure bill first, according to a senior Democratic aide.

Pelosi has said she won’t do that, as dozens of progressive Democrats have warned they won’t support the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the Senate passes a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package. The speaker can lose no more than three Democratic votes given Republicans are all expected to vote against the budget.

At least one Democrat, Oregon’s Kurt Schrader, has already pledged to oppose the budget resolution due to concerns about the level of spending. Hawaii Rep. Ed Case has expressed similar concerns and said in a recent interview he wouldn’t support the budget without a vote scheduled on the infrastructure bill. 

The Senate voted 69-30 Tuesday to pass the infrastructure bill, which provides $550 billion in new spending for highway, water, transit, broadband and other projects. But that represents a small portion of President Joe Biden’s economic plans.

Democrats want to use the budget reconciliation process to pass another $3.5 trillion in spending on “human infrastructure” — policies like free community college, universal pre-kindergarten, national paid leave, expanded Medicare benefits and a host of climate programs — that they would offset mostly with tax increases on the wealthy and corporations and savings from allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. 

Adopting a budget is the first step in the reconciliation process, which allows Senate Democrats to pass the economic package that Republicans plan to uniformly oppose in the Senate with a simple majority vote instead of the usual 60 needed to cut off debate.

‘This is the consensus’

Pelosi has repeatedly vowed to hold the infrastructure bill in the House until the Senate also passes the reconciliation package, ensuring all of Biden’s economic policies are implemented together.

“I am not freelancing. This is the consensus,” Pelosi said on a Democratic Caucus call Wednesday, according to a source familiar with her remarks. “The votes in the House and Senate depend on us having both bills.”

The reconciliation bill, however, won’t be ready for weeks.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has asked his committees to have their portions of the reconciliation bill ready by Sept. 15, which is also likely to be the deadline for House committees who will be drafting similar legislation. The deadline was written into the budget resolution that provides instructions to committees, but the language is nonbinding. 

One of moderates’ concerns about tying the infrastructure bill to reconciliation is the timing provides little room to get the former passed before the current surface transportation funding authorization expires Sept. 30, according to the aide. They also feel passing both at the same time muddles the messaging, and that spreading them out provides Biden and Democrats an opportunity to sell voters on two wins instead of one. 

“While I support passing a targeted reconciliation bill to help FL families, we shouldn’t hold infrastructure hostage to it,” Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy, who co-chairs the fiscally conscious Blue Dog Coalition, tweeted Wednesday. 

California Rep. Jared Huffman, a progressive Democrat, replied to Murphy’s tweet: “Respectfully, no.”

Competing letters 

Democratic leaders scheduled the House to return the week of Aug. 23 to vote on the budget understanding the complex dynamics in their caucus. Progressives have long called for the infrastructure bill to be linked to the reconciliation bill, while moderates have been pushing the opposite. 

Those positions were reiterated in dueling letters the factions sent to Pelosi on Tuesday. 

Nine moderate Democrats, led by House Problem Solvers Caucus co-chair Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, wrote to Pelosi asking for a standalone vote on the infrastructure bill, “without regard to other legislation.”              

“After years of waiting, we cannot afford unnecessary delays to finally deliver on a physical infrastructure package,” they said. 

In addition to Gottheimer, the Democrats who signed the letter were Case, Schrader, Maine’s Jared Golden, Nevada’s Susie Lee, California’s Jim Costa and Texans Filemon Vela, Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez

Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders sent their own missive warning that an attempt to pass the infrastructure bill before reconciliation won’t fly with them. The group’s top three leaders — chair Pramila Jayapal of Washington, first vice chair Katie Porter of California and whip Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — said a survey of the 96 caucus members revealed that a majority are willing to withhold their votes for the infrastructure bill until the Senate passes “a robust reconciliation package” that is acceptable to progressives. 

Moderates had hoped Biden would step in and pressure Pelosi to bring the bipartisan bill up for a vote immediately, but when asked about that after Senate passage Tuesday, the president declined to place it on a separate timetable from reconciliation.

“We’ll get it done. I’ll get both,” Biden said.

No changes

Assuming Democratic leaders can wrangle the necessary votes, the House plans to take up the Senate-adopted budget resolution without changes.

“I’ve not heard anyone in leadership talk about amending it,” House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth said in an interview Wednesday.  

Yarmuth and his staff worked with Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders and his staff as they drafted the budget resolution, and he said “there weren’t any surprises.“

Speaking before the Democratic Caucus call, Yarmuth, D-Ky., said he planned to tell his colleagues that the House’s opportunity to make its imprint would be in the implementing legislation. The House has to vote on the reconciliation package first because the Constitution requires revenue measures to originate in the House.

“This is where we get our turn,” he said. 

Yarmuth said he had not spoken with any of the nine moderates who sent the letter to Pelosi on Tuesday since it came out. In addition to wanting a vote on the infrastructure bill, the moderates said they had “concerns about the specific components” of the potential $3.5 trillion reconciliation package. 

“Before the House adopts a budget resolution, Members of Congress should be able to review a detailed scope of spending levels and revenue raisers,” they wrote.  

The offices for members who signed the letter either did not return requests for comment or were unable to provide clarity on what details those members needed to see and if they’d vote against the budget without that information.

Yarmuth was also unclear on what details could be provided to those members beyond the summaries that had already been released since the implementing legislation has not yet been drafted. 

In the Senate, the summary of anticipated policies Democrats hope to include in the reconciliation proved flexible enough for members to adopt the budget, even as key centrists like Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III warned they may not support $3.5 trillion in new spending in the end. 

“I have serious concerns about the grave consequences facing West Virginians and every American family if Congress decides to spend another $3.5 trillion,” Manchin said in a statement Wednesday, just hours after the Senate adopted the budget. 

“Given the current state of the economic recovery, it is simply irresponsible to continue spending at levels more suited to respond to a Great Depression or Great Recession — not an economy that is on the verge of overheating,” he said. “More importantly, I firmly believe that continuing to spend at irresponsible levels puts at risk our nation’s ability to respond to the unforeseen crises our country could face.”

Many House moderates have expressed similar concerns, but with the exception of Schrader, they’ve remained open to passing a reconciliation bill. But they’ve also not yet committed to the $3.5 trillion spending target. 

Ultimately moderates don’t need to be comfortable with that number to vote for the budget, which provides instructions for committees that would allow for up to $1.75 trillion in deficit spending. The Senate Finance and House Ways and Means Committees would have broad latitude to go beyond that so long as they fully offset any additional spending.

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