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House Democrats cancel budget vote as liberals demand more spending on social programs

House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), shown March 27 at the Capitol, said of Democrats’ divide on budget caps: “We have to figure out whether we’re going to be able to govern.” (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

A liberal revolt forced House Democratic leaders to call off a planned vote on a two-year budget plan Tuesday, an embarrassing outcome for leadership that raised questions about Congress’s ability to solve huge spending fights that loom later this year.

The development demonstrated the newfound clout of the most liberal members of the House, and their ability to frustrate their leaders’ plans if they stick together — much as the conservative Freedom Caucus routinely did when Republicans controlled the House.

And it underscored divisions among House Democrats that have repeatedly forced them to focus on internal disputes instead of the governing agenda they hoped to celebrate as they approach 100 days in the majority. They will reach that milestone on Friday as they gather in Virginia for their annual retreat.

“We have to figure out whether we’re going to be able to govern,” Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) told reporters Tuesday morning as plans to hold a vote on his legislation on Wednesday began to collapse.

At stake Tuesday was legislation setting overall federal spending levels for domestic and military programs that depend on annual congressional appropriations, including the Pentagon and agencies that affect many Americans, such as the Education and Health and Human Services departments. (The bill would not set spending levels for programs that are funded automatically, such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.)

Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus were pushing an amendment calling for higher levels of domestic spending. With Republicans expected to unanimously oppose the legislation, leaders could lose only 17 Democrats on the vote, giving the group of lawmakers the power to exact their demands.

But moderate-leaning Democrats opposed the amendment over concerns about skyrocketing federal spending, deficits and debt. And the moderates had separate concerns over how much the underlying bill would raise spending, which further reduced leaders’ wiggle room for defections. In the end, leaders decided not to bring the bill up for a vote Wednesday.

“For us and for progressives . . . this is a big victory in that it became clear that without real, strong progressive inclusion into the process of a bill, we’re not going to be able to get there,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a leader of the Progressive Caucus, said after leaders announced the vote would not take place. “Hopefully everybody understands now that the best success for a united caucus is for us to be consulted and be at the table.”

House leaders downplayed the significance of what had taken place.

“This is not an outcome; this is a process,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said. Asked if House Democrats would able to arrive at needed budget deals given the divisions on display Tuesday, Pelosi responded: “Of course.”

Wednesday’s vote was to have been House Democrats’ opening bid in negotiations that are needed to raise austere spending caps that will snap into place on military and domestic spending budgets early next year absent a deal. However, numerous lawmakers noted that a deal will require input from the White House and Senate Republicans anyway, and can take place without House Democrats passing legislation until much later this year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced Tuesday he had spoken with Pelosi and that bicameral budget negotiations would be getting underway. Congress also faces a looming deadline to raise the federal borrowing limit. The limit, often called the “debt ceiling” is also expected to be part of the talks.

The negotiations will take place as Congress and the White House eye a Sept. 30 deadline when existing government spending will run out, threatening another government shutdown if no deal is reached. At the same time, if Congress doesn’t raise the debt limit by sometime this fall, the government could fall behind on some of its payments, which could spark another financial crisis.

The spending caps for 2020 that were approved by the House Budget Committee and were expected on the floor devoted a larger share of the discretionary budget to defense spending ($664 billion) than nondefense spending ($631 billion), which has been the case in federal budgets for years — although the legislation did include a higher year-over-year increase for nondefense spending than for military spending.

But the defense spending levels are a sore spot for liberals, who want Democrats to use their new majority to advocate a tougher line that would bring defense and domestic spending to dollar-for-dollar parity. The amendment offered by Jayapal would have increased domestic spending to match money for the military.

Jayapal said Tuesday it was a matter of Democrats making good on their campaign promises after eight years in the House minority, during which Republicans forced President Barack Obama into a 2010 deal to cap federal spending for 10 years. Those caps have been consistently raised in the years since, but the gap between defense and domestic spending has grown in recent years as President Trump and congressional Republicans pursued a military buildup.

“This is not a hard ask — this is a $33 billion increase [in nondefense spending],” Jayapal said. “Here’s a real opportunity to tell people we are investing in their future and not in a Pentagon . . . that is increasingly wasteful and hasn’t conducted an audit. . . . We say we’re for the people; we have to be for the people.”

To gently push back on liberals, Democratic leadership invited Robert Greenstein, president of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, to address the caucus in support of the committee’s caps. Top Democrats, including Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), also reminded lawmakers that they need not only the 218 votes to pass a bill in the House, but also Senate GOP support and a signature from the White House.

The liberal revolt played out one day before House Democrats are set to kick off their yearly policy retreat at a resort in Leesburg, Va. — an event that is meant to build camaraderie and unite lawmakers behind a common agenda. But several Democrats said they saw those goals at risk in the spending standoff.

“We’re able to have some differences, but at the end of the day, we have to be able to govern,” said Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.), a Budget Committee member. “We can’t let ourselves fall off the cliff here.”

Democratic leaders were also facing opposition on the other ideological end of their caucus. Roughly half of the 27-member moderate Blue Dog Coalition were prepared to oppose the new spending caps, according to a senior Democratic aide, even without Jayapal’s amendment to raise them further.

As party leaders made the decision to abandon plans to vote this week, Blue Dog leaders told reporters that the group would insist on sticking to their vow of fiscal responsibility, complaining that the proposed spending increases were not offset by cuts or revenue increases.

“It’s hard for us to go home to our districts and explain to our constituents that we are adding to the deficit without having a real conversation about what our priorities are and having a deliberate process,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a co-chair of the group. “The system is broken, and someone has to be the adult in the room to try and get us back on track.”

Underscoring the opposition from the party’s fiscal right wing, seven moderates voted against a procedural measure that set up consideration of the budget legislation and also provided for the passage of appropriations bills later this year spending up to $1.3 trillion. Six of the seven are members of the Blue Dogs.

Under the spending levels passed by the Budget Committee last week, the $664 billion defense spending cap and $631 billion nondefense cap would rise in 2021 to $680 billion and $646 billion, respectively. The bill also limits a separate war-fighting account — one the Trump administration has proposed bulking up to avoid existing statutory caps — at $77 billion.

The levels represent a significant increase over both the current-year spending levels of $647 billion for defense and $597 billion for nondefense, as well as the existing 2020 budget caps of $576 billion for defense and $542 billion for nondefense that would take effect if Congress cannot reach a deal to raise them.

Jeff Stein and Damian Paletta contributed to this report.

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