The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democratic divisions emerge after Senate adopts $3.5 trillion budget

Policy schisms in the Senate — and ideological divisions in the House — could stall progress on Biden’s agenda after a key vote this week.

The U.S. Capitol in Washington at sunset on Aug. 2. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
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Not even a day after Senate Democrats adopted a sweeping $3.5 trillion budget, the party’s lawmakers found themselves grappling with an even thornier political challenge: how to overcome their own divisions and transform the blueprint into law.

The spending outline adopted in the early hours of Wednesday puts forward a vast new vision for the future of the federal government. It opens the door to significant overhauls in health care, education, immigration and the tax code as Democrats aim to leverage their power in Washington to deliver on President Biden’s broader economic agenda.

But the Senate vote is only the first step on a much longer, politically treacherous path. House lawmakers soon must adopt their own resolution, and Democrats in both chambers eventually face the task of turning their numbers into actual legislation that expands Medicare, boosts federal safety-net programs and addresses climate change. The looming, intricate process has exposed lingering schisms in the party that threaten to complicate the lawmakers’ task.

The Senate had finished its budget only hours earlier on Wednesday when some centrist Democrats sounded fresh trepidation about its $3.5 trillion price tag. Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), one of the most influential swing votes in the chamber, joined with other Democrats in advancing the resolution for now. But he said he could not support that level of spending in a final package out of fear that it could add to the deficit. Such spending “puts at risk our nation’s ability to respond to the unforeseen crises our country could face,” he said.

Moderates in the House soon raised their own cost concerns, all the while issuing early, private warnings that they were unwilling to adopt the budget unless they could vote first on a bipartisan infrastructure bill that also cleared the Senate this week. Such an ultimatum could complicate the plans of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to return the chamber to session at the end of August and adopt the budget resolution swiftly.

“We don’t want to just rubber-stamp what they send us,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), one of the leaders of a bipartisan, centrist group in the House known as the Problem Solvers Caucus.

Hours after the U.S. Senate approved a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint on Aug. 11, Democrats debated over the size and scope of the spending. (Video: Reuters)

The litany of potential objections cast an odd pall over the Capitol, not even a day after Biden and his Democratic allies heralded their accomplishments as a sign that Washington still works. And it left some of the party’s own leaders acknowledging the difficulty of the task ahead — illustrating the delicate dance they face in sustaining their momentum and preserving Biden’s plans.

“What we’re doing here isn’t easy,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) during a news conference Wednesday. “We’ve labored for months and months to reach this point. And we have no illusions — maybe the hardest work is yet to come.”

The difficulties indicate the promise and peril in Democrats’ narrow yet potent majorities in Congress. With only a three-vote edge in the House and a mere tiebreaking advantage in the Senate, the party cannot afford to lose support to internal disagreements — a dynamic that gives individual lawmakers outsize influence in the economic policy fights to come.

Democrats’ political fissures surfaced as soon as Biden unveiled his jobs, infrastructure and families plans this spring. The packages totaled more than $4 trillion of spending and quickly sparked an early debate among Democrats as to whether they should work with Republicans to cut a deal, scaling down their aspirations in the process — or forge ahead on their own in a belief that they have an electoral mandate to act.

Democrats ultimately settled on a hybrid, as the White House labored alongside senators from both parties in weeks of negotiations over infrastructure. All the while, Democrats prepared to tackle the rest of the president’s priorities without Republican support. The approach helped them fulfill some of the promises they made on the 2020 campaign trail and aided Biden as he labored to broker his first bipartisan deal.

The first package is a $1.2 trillion proposal to improve the country’s roads, bridges, pipelines, ports and Internet connections. Nineteen Senate Republicans joined with Democrats on Tuesday to adopt that plan. The second is a roughly $3.5 trillion budget, which opens the door to a vast expansion of federal social safety-net programs. Republicans vehemently oppose such an expansion. Democrats hope to finance the latter collection of spending through tax increases on corporations and wealthy families, unwinding the cuts enacted under President Donald Trump.

“We need to make this economy work better for working families in the long run,” Biden said at the White House on Wednesday. “These challenges were with us long before the pandemic took off. But, as we recover from this crisis, now is the moment to put in place a long-term plan to build back America better.”

The Senate’s party-line vote to adopt the $3.5 trillion package was the first critical step in the process known as reconciliation, which allows Democrats in the Senate to circumvent a guaranteed GOP filibuster. Party lawmakers still must translate their objectives into legislation, a process that began before this week — including on the tax-focused Senate Finance Committee. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the panel’s chairman, said Wednesday that he has been huddling with other Democrats to try to find a plan that can attain consensus on one of the most difficult issues lawmakers face.

“In a 50-50 Senate, everyone has gotta [reach] some common ground,” he said. “I’m not going to pretend this is a walk in the park. It’s not.”

Quickly, though, other objections among the party’s moderates threatened to force Democrats to scale back their ambitions. Manchin on Wednesday raised “serious concerns” about adding to the deficit, saying that it is “irresponsible to continue spending at levels more suited to respond to a Great Depression or Great Recession.” His comments echoed those of another pivotal swing vote in the chamber: Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), who announced days before the vote that she would not support a final package that costs $3.5 trillion.

“I do not support a bill that costs $3.5 trillion — and in the coming months, I will work in good faith to develop this legislation with my colleagues and the administration to strengthen Arizona’s economy and help Arizona’s everyday families get ahead,” she said at the time.

The issue had been a looming flash point for Senate Democrats for months. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), one of the lawmakers who helped craft the infrastructure deal as well as the $3.5 trillion budget, said on Wednesday that his peers had been “urging me to go higher” in the early talks on reconciliation. He said he ultimately ended up at a number that might be “farther” than where some centrists might want to be.

For Warner, that political landscape in the Senate set the stage for a “ferocious” debate that may force Democrats to scale back their plans.

“You can’t do all of the things on the list,” Warner said.

The challenges appear to be even greater in the House, where some Democrats are demanding a robust budget deal to compensate for what they see as shortcomings in the infrastructure package. Leading the charge is the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which issued a letter Tuesday pledging that most of its 96 members would “withhold their votes” on that roughly $1 trillion public-works measure “until the Senate adopted a robust reconciliation package.”

Liberals, led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), have said that their demands include not only the budget resolution, which sets the overall spending level, but also the legislation implementing it. That has raised tensions with moderate Democrats in the chamber, who in recent days have considered issuing an ultimatum of their own.

Behind the scenes, as many as 10 lawmakers from the party’s centrist bloc also have signaled that they are willing to vote against the budget unless they get assurances from leadership that they can vote first on the bipartisan infrastructure deal that also cleared the Senate this week, according to a senior Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks. Otherwise, moderates are still supportive of using reconciliation to advance new economic programs, the source said.

The centrist group, so far, has not issued a public threat. Publicly, though, nine moderates sent a letter to Pelosi on Tuesday warning that they “cannot afford unnecessary delays to finally deliver on a physical infrastructure package.”

The missive came from lawmakers including Gottheimer, whose caucus worked alongside Senate negotiators in crafting the public-works deal, and others including Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.). The nine House members also expressed trepidation about the cost of a reconciliation package, citing a need for restraint amid the “combined threat of rising inflation, national debt, and the trillions recently, and appropriately, allocated to the covid-19 emergency.”

In an interview, Gottheimer said there are similar concerns among some House Democrats about the way the budget finances the proposed new spending. “The numbers we have so far are the numbers that came out of the White House,” he said. “Those numbers, at those levels proposed, are dead on arrival. I don’t think they can get votes for that.”

For now, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) late Tuesday announced only that the budget measure, not the infrastructure legislation, would be on lawmakers’ schedules when they return from recess the week of Aug. 23. Pelosi told her caucus on a call a day later that she intends for House committees to complete their policy work on the package by mid-September.

“Everyone is posturing to a certain extent,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee. But he predicted that the process, while potentially long and winding, eventually would be resolved.

“They’re not going to vote against child care, and senior care, and climate policy, and expanded health care, and things that are not only important parts of the Democratic agenda and the administration’s agenda but also wildly popular,” he said. “I think we can work through them.”

Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.

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