The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Standoff between liberal and moderate Democrats looms over Biden economic agenda ahead of key House vote

Razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate give Democrats little wiggle room as they try and assemble budget plan

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) speaks briefly to reporters as she boards an elevator following votes at the U.S. Capitol. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Congressional Democrats warred with each other on Tuesday over the price tag and policy scope of their roughly $4 trillion economic agenda, raising the potential for a stunning, self-inflicted defeat as the House prepares to vote on one of the measures next week.

After months of grueling public hearings and frantic behind-the-scenes wrangling, House Democratic leaders insisted they are sticking with their original timeline: They said they plan to vote on a measure to improve the nations roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections in six days.

The commitment fulfills a promise that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) previously made to a small group of her party’s centrist lawmakers, a move that quelled an internal revolt that nearly brought the chamber to a standstill as it debated President Biden’s priorities last month. With the House’s adoption, the roughly $1 trillion infrastructure bill would then head to Biden’s desk, having already passed the Senate.

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But Pelosi’s plans quickly appeared in fresh political peril, as her party’s liberal-leaning members issued their own demands. The bloc of lawmakers pledged anew they would not vote on a public-works deal unless Congress first adopted another, larger package that includes major overhauls to health, education, immigration, climate and tax laws.

That proposal, at roughly $3.5 trillion, remains an unfinished product in both the House and Senate, as liberal and moderate Democrats continue to quarrel over how much they should spend. With those fights unlikely to be resolved in the immediate future — and internal party divides only growing in the meantime — the fate of both measures entering next week remained in great doubt.

“I don’t think that the speaker is going to bring up a bill up that is going to fail,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the leader of the nearly 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, said late Tuesday after she met privately for nearly two hours with Pelosi.

“At the end of the day, if we don't have the reconciliation bill done, the infrastructure bill will not pass,” Jayapal said.

The conflicting demands left Democratic leaders in a bind, staring down the sort of internal political stalemate they had labored for months to avoid given their narrow majorities in the House and Senate. Democrats simply cannot afford to lose votes as they pursue trillions of dollars in long-promised reforms.

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The standoff also risked introducing significant delays to Biden’s agenda, particularly a time when Democrats face even more urgent challenges on Capitol Hill — including a must-pass bill to fund the government and permit the country to continue to incur debt to pay its debts. Those dire debates could push work on the $1 trillion infrastructure bill and the roughly $3.5 trillion tax-and-spending measure into October, whether lawmakers like it or not.

Hoping to quell the growing dissent, Biden plans to hold a series of meeting with House Democrats across the political spectrum in the coming days, aiming to hear their concerns while making the case for new federal investments. A person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the White House’s thinking, confirmed the upcoming meetings late Tuesday.

The party’s internal tensions first came to head in late August, resulting in a deal between Pelosi and a group of nine moderates led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.). To pave the way for the House to proceed with its work, Pelosi committed to taking up the new infrastructure investments by Sept. 27. She also pledged she would only bring a second, $3.5 trillion tax-and-spending measure if it was clear it had sufficient support in the Senate, a commitment Pelosi reiterated late Monday.

“I have promised Members that we would not have House Members vote for a bill with a higher top line than would be passed by the Senate. Hopefully, that will be at the $3.5 trillion number,” she said in a letter to her caucus.

The $3.5 trillion proposal itself remains in great doubt, especially as moderates including Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) continue to demand potentially significant reductions in its price tag — frustrating more left-leaning Democrats who fear they are squandering a generational political opportunity to seek significant change.

Yet Democratic leaders reaffirmed their timeline on Tuesday anyway, as Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) made clear they would not waver from their intention to try to adopt an infrastructure bill by Sept. 27. In doing so, he urged fellow Democrats to recognize the big picture and remain united on not giving up on a rare opportunity to pass hundreds of priorities.

The move left some liberals seething — and preparing to fulfill their prior threat.

“I don’t think that it’s advisable for the vote to happen on Monday without reconciliation now,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday, referring to the legislative process Democrats plan to use to advance the $3.5 trillion bill.

“This is not just about political leverage, it’s about policy and preserving a livable planet,” tweeted Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.).

Privately, some Democrats believe they could lose 50 or more votes on infrastructure reform if members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus mobilize in response. The powerful bloc huddled to discuss their strategy Tuesday, all the while moderates continued trying to whip potential Republican votes to offset any Democratic defections on the public-works deal.

Reacting to the liberals’ latest threats, Gottheimer stressed he is “optimistic we’ll have the votes” on infrastructure.

Other centrist Democrats set their sights in the meantime on trying to scale back the $3.5 trillion tax-and-spending measure to their liking.

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Some of the most forceful objections have come from Sinema and Manchin, who met with President Biden to discuss her position last week. Three people familiar with Sinema’s thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe their private conversations, said she is especially interested in targeting some of the aid more narrowly based on income and economic status than her Democratic peers might have preferred. That includes the new prekindergarten and community college spending.

But the two lawmakers increasingly represent only a fraction of the concerns raised among Democratic ranks. Other moderate Democrats in the House harbor their own doubts about the party’s attempts to overhaul federal health care, education, immigration, climate and tax laws in the way Biden has envisioned.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), the leader of the moderate-leaning Blue Dog Coalition, recently has criticized “duplicative spending” in the still-forming bill — as well as potential “unintended consequences” that could come from that tax increases that fund it. Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) has sought to narrow Democrats’ efforts to rein in prescription drug costs for millions of seniors. And Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) has questioned if the package is fully financed, despite Democratic leaders’ insistence that it is.

The moderates’ early objections are critical: Even though the lawmakers have not explicitly threatened to vote against the bill, Democrats cannot afford their defections, either. The party has no votes to spare in the Senate, and can only stomach the loss of three in the House, making the process to assuage the ideologically diverse caucus all the more important in the days ahead.

With the clock ticking, some centrist lawmakers this week have offered a sober assessment of the package as it currently stands: “No, I don’t think that it would gain the votes necessary to pass the House,” Case said in an interview.

The rumblings earlier this week prompted Pelosi’s top aides to canvass the House in recent days, aiming to address the potential flash points among members of their own party. Three Democratic aides to Pelosi and other House leaders said they ultimately expect to resolve the differences, citing the fact that the same political fissures tend to surface around every major spending initiative.

“Wouldn’t be Congress without process angst,” confided one Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the caucus’s thinking.

Jacqueline Alemany and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.