PHILADELPHIA — House Democrats canceled the first night of a three-day conference here Wednesday after plans to pass a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill stretched into the night.
Democrats’ plans to pass the spending package and then board buses near the Capitol early in the afternoon were delayed after party Frontliners objected to cutting previously enacted state aid to pay for new COVID-19 vaccine and therapeutic programs.
In a letter to his colleagues sent after 5 p.m., House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said the fate of the rest of the three-day conference was still being decided, along with “logistical and transportation issues in that regard.”
It’s not the first time one of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plans was derailed. With a narrow majority, defection by just six Democrats is enough to defeat a bill or a procedural vote if all Republicans are united in opposition.
Pelosi defended releasing the massive spending package after midnight and trying to have a vote later that morning, saying it was the product of compromise with Republicans in the Senate, where 10 of their votes are needed to end a filibuster on legislation.
“We’re in a legislative process. We have a deadline for keeping government open. We have a lively negotiation. It has to be bipartisan, we want it to be bipartisan, but in the Senate you need 60 votes,” Pelosi said at a news conference.
In a sign of how those talks had dragged on, the spending bill is being adopted more than five months into the 2022 fiscal year. The House began debate on the first procedural measure after 6 p.m., and plans included not only separating the COVID-19 package from the larger bill but also another short-term extension of last year’s budget to prevent the possibility of a shutdown.
Democrats were supposed to hear a keynote address Wednesday night from national climate adviser Gina McCarthy, Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. Raimondo spoke at the Capitol instead of traveling to the City of Brotherly Love, according to Axios.
More programming is scheduled throughout the day on Thursday, and President Joe Biden is set to address the caucus on Friday.
As the House began its delayed debate and took the first procedural votes Wednesday night, a handful of staffers, Capitol Police officers and reporters waited in Philadelphia for them to arrive. Magnetometers, which have been set up outside the House floor for more than a year, were at the entrances of buildings where lawmakers were expected to enter.
The retreat, which is the first time the caucus is set to officially gather outside of Capitol Hill since the COVID-19 pandemic began, was meant to be a moment for Democrats to come together as primary elections are set to pick up across the country in the coming months. Democrats face a political environment favorable to Republicans, with inflation up and gas prices rising as war continues in Ukraine. More than 30 Democrats have said they won’t seek reelection to the House this year, and Republicans need a net gain of just five seats to take the majority.
Senate Democrats also held a retreat Wednesday, but took a shorter trip to Howard University in Northwest Washington. The location put a spotlight on historically black colleges and universities, some of which have recently faced extremist bomb threats.
“Staff has worked incredibly hard to put together a robust program and have served us well,” Jeffries said in the letter. “We are disappointed that, at the very least, the Issues Conference has been cut short.”