The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

$4 trillion White House agenda in peril as Democrats still at odds ahead of key votes

House lawmakers are supposed to begin debating massive infrastructure legislation on Monday

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks at an event this week on Capitol Hill. (Samuel Corum/Bloomberg)
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Congressional Democrats on Sunday hurtled toward a political showdown over President Biden’s roughly $4 trillion economic agenda, as simmering feuds between the party’s liberal and moderate lawmakers threatened to scuttle a series of critical House votes as soon as this week.

With the chamber set to return to work on Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sought to make the case for swift action. She stressed that Democrats needed to adopt their packages to vastly improve the national infrastructure and overhaul federal education, health care and tax policy, describing those two legislative efforts as “transformative.”

“Overwhelmingly the entirety of our caucus, except for the few whose judgment I respect, support the vision of Joe Biden. And we will make progress on it this week,” Pelosi told ABC News “This Week.”

However, both proposals remain unsettled on specifics even a day before the House is set to start considering them, essentially thrusting the whole of the Biden agenda into political limbo. Centrist Democrats have pushed most forcefully for a roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure proposal, after securing from Pelosi the previous commitment to start debating the measure on Sept. 27. She affirmed the plan Sunday night, saying that the House intends to vote on the significant measure come Thursday.

Democrats worry party will blow chance of enacting historic agenda

But the timeline has angered liberals, many of whom have said for months they would not support the infrastructure bill until the House first adopts a second $3.5 trillion plan which will raise taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations to pay for a slew of new federal safety net programs.

The party divisions have put Pelosi in a political bind as she tries to satisfy two disparate party factions in the midst of a ticking clock. Adding to her challenges, lawmakers also have only five days left to adopt a measure to fund the government, preventing a shutdown during the pandemic.

The House speaker still tried to project confidence, stressing she believes the House can finish the work on time and “pass the bill this week” which bolsters the national infrastructure. In the same breath, however, she also told ABC News she would never bring a measure to the floor “that doesn’t have the votes,” reflecting the vast uncertainty in the days ahead.

Pelosi has acknowledged that the $3.5 trillion tax-and-spending package is likely to be reduced in size, describing its whittling down as “self-evident.” However, she dismissed the idea that those “few people not in agreement” evince a party that is bitterly divided, insisting that even Democrats “who want a smaller number support the vision of the president.”

White House tells agencies to prepare for the possible shutdown

The legislative frenzy in the House comes as Biden himself acknowledges the political challenge in enacting an agenda he has described in historic terms since the spring. While speaking at the White House on Friday, the president said the process on Capitol Hill is “just going to take some time,” suggesting at one point the policy agenda may lapse into next year, before shifting course and saying it could still occur more quickly.

No matter the timeline, the fresh task ahead for Democrats is gargantuan, forcing them to resolve the policy differences that source back to the very election that helped them secure the narrow Washington majorities in the first place. The current House stalemate stems in part from an agreement between Pelosi and a group of nine centrists led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.). The bloc held up the House earlier this year in one attempt to secure a swift vote on infrastructure reform, resulting in a commitment from the speaker to begin considering the bill on Sept. 27.

The public works proposal will put forward massive new investments to improve the national roads, bridges, pipes, ports and online connections across the country, delivering on promises of politicians past, including former president Donald Trump. The package cleared the Senate on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis in August, and a House vote as soon as this week would send it to Biden’s desk for a signature.

Democrats say they have the policy framework on tax increases

Appearing on CNN, Gottheimer on Sunday noted that he feels “very good” about getting a vote on the measure this week, citing the urgency at a time when his region is still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. “When it does come to the floor, we will have the votes,” he said.

But the bill is at risk of defeat in the chamber. Republicans have mobilized to prevent Biden from attaining any victory, even if it benefits their home districts, and even some Democrats have taken aim as part of the broader fight over the president’s agenda. Liberal-leaning lawmakers have warned Pelosi for months against bringing it for a vote before the House finishes work on another $3.5 trillion spending package.

That is a threat which Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, essentially repeated on Sunday. “Our point is just we are ready to vote for both. We will vote for both, but we need to actually get the bill done,” she told CNN.

The still forming $3.5 trillion proposal would grow Medicare, invest new sums to combat climate change, and boost a slew of tax credits and other programs that help families, students and children in need. Democrats intend to pass it using a process known as reconciliation, which allows them to avoid any Senate Republican filibuster.

But the maneuver only works if Democrats remain united, an increasingly difficult task given the objections raised by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who have sought to decrease its price tag considerably. Talks between the Democratic factions continued with the White House over the weekend, days after Biden himself had convened lawmakers to hammer out an agreement over its spending scope and the tax increases that lawmakers have included to pay for it.

House Democrats this weekend still took the procedural steps needed to tee it up on the chamber floor. A panel of lawmakers led by Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) advanced it to the next stage on Saturday, though the usually routine process further exposed party divisions.

A panel member, Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), voted against its advance. Peters previously has opposed its inclusion of prescription drug pricing reforms, siding with the pharmaceutical industry in arguing the current plan from Democrats could curtail advanced research. His stance offered one sign of the stakes Pelosi and the rest of the party face in navigating a delicate legislative process with so little votes to spare.

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All these tensions set the stage for a frenetic next few days for Democratic lawmakers, who also face the added challenge of staving off a government shutdown. A shutdown will occur on Friday if members of Congress fail to pass a new bill to fund federal agencies. If it occurs, there will be a major interruption in government operations as well as the pay of hundreds of thousands of workers will be frozen during the pandemic.

Democrats have pledged to pass a spending bill before that deadline, but their ability to do so depends on Republicans supporting such a measure before funding lapses Thursday night. Republican lawmakers are expected to scuttle a related measure in the Senate that would prevent a shutdown because it is coupled with a plan to raise the debt ceiling, a critical issue they oppose in an attempt to undermine Biden’s agenda.