The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House agrees to lift debt ceiling as Democrats spar over shape of broader spending bill

Pelosi is preparing Democrats to accept some cuts to their $3.5 trillion economic package in order to broaden support

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) departs after a news conference Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday sought to steel Democrats for coming cuts to their $3.5 trillion tax-and-spending package, stressing the process to whittle down the party’s landmark proposal would not “diminish the transformative nature of what it is.”

The renewed warning came as negotiations continued between Democratic lawmakers and the White House over the future of President Biden’s economic agenda. Appearing at her weekly news conference, Pelosi said there are “important decisions to make in the next few days” if they hope to forge a legislative compromise that the fuller party, including its spending-weary centrists, ultimately can support.

“I’m very disappointed we’re not going with the original $3.5 trillion,” Pelosi told reporters. “But whatever we do we will make decisions that will continue to be transformative.”

Biden urges Democrats to compromise, have patience as they work on spending packages.

The proposal House Democrats unveiled in September aims to expand Medicare, combat climate change, improve education and offer a slew of new benefits to help families and children, with much of the spending financed through new tax increases on corporations and the wealthy. But its price tag and policy scope are likely to be scaled back dramatically, since two of the party’s most pivotal moderates, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), have said they would not support a bill as large as $3.5 trillion.

Their opposition has set off a frenzy of talks that increasingly have involved Biden, who personally has warned Democrats in recent days that their package is likely to be less than $2.5 trillion. And it has hardened the resolve of the party’s liberal-leaning lawmakers, who sought to make clear at their own news conference Tuesday that they are willing to make a deal on potential cuts — but only up to a point.

“Every poll I have seen indicates there is massive support for [the bill] and the provisions that are in it,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), later adding: “We are prepared to negotiate, we are prepared to compromise, but we are not going to negotiate with ourselves.”

Liberal Democrats have become the mainstream of the party.

In a sign of a potentially widening, intraparty schism, top lawmakers in the Congressional Progressive Caucus on Tuesday said they remain steadfastly committed to the priorities they outlined in April to tackle issues including paid leave, climate change, housing, health-care reform and immigration. The leader of the bloc, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), said they would rather authorize those programs for fewer years rather than remove some fully from the final bill to save money.

“We’re not going to pit child care against climate change,” said Jayapal, outlining the difficulty lawmakers would face in deciding where to trim. “We’re not going to pit seniors against young people.”

Jayapal’s comments came a day after Pelosi issued a letter to her caucus citing “guidance I am receiving” from other Democrats, who said the speaker should instead “do fewer things well so that we can still have a transformative impact on families.” But Pelosi on Tuesday also said she believed lawmakers should first look to limit the duration of programs, a set of comments that only served to illustrate the tough, uncertain road ahead.

The scramble to scale back the party’s prized economic proposal amounts to only one of many legislative challenges facing Pelosi and other Democratic leaders in what is likely to be a frenzied final few months of the year. House lawmakers on Tuesday tackled another one of those issues — preserving the government’s ability to borrow money to pay its bills — in time to prevent a potential default that would have occurred in six days.

While Democrats voted for the measure, Republicans largely opposed it. If the GOP had prevailed, the defeat would have threatened to catapult the United States back into a recession, the Biden administration warned in recent days. Instead, the successful vote to raise the debt ceiling buys the House and Senate until December, at which point the two parties must confront the high-stakes fiscal fight once again.

The House voted 219-206 to temporarily raise the debt ceiling on Oct. 12. (Video: Reuters)

In the meantime, Democrats also seek to advance two major spending initiatives backed by Biden before the end of the month, a loose deadline that corresponds with the expiration of federal highway programs. The first is a bipartisan plan to improve the nation’s infrastructure, which already has passed the Senate. The second is the broader tax-and-spending package, which the warring Democrats in Congress have yet to finalize.

For weeks, Manchin and Sinema have offered little insight as to how they would like to reshape the broader spending measure, even as they have huddled privately with Biden. That has frustrated liberals, who have blasted their centrist counterparts for failing to be more forthright with a package they say is widely popular with voters. The bickering is critical for Democrats, who cannot afford to lose more than three votes in the House — and cannot spare any in the Senate — if they hope to deliver Biden a long-sought win.

On Tuesday, though, Pelosi projected a measure of “optimism,” even as she acknowledged to reporters the disagreements among her own ranks. “We are a Democratic Party. We are not a rubber stamp or a lockstep party,” she said.

Liberals, however, increasingly grew restive.

Speaking at a separate press event, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) stressed that many Democrats aren’t willing to limit their plans to address climate change. “We can’t negotiate with deadly wildfires,” the senator said, responding to the ongoing talks between Congress and the White House.

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) pledged to continue fighting to advance immigration reforms, even though parliamentary obstacles in the chamber may spoil Democrats’ efforts. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) emphasized that aid should be as universal as possible, part of an effort to ward off the eligibility requirements that Manchin and other centrists have raised to limit funds. And Sanders fiercely defended his proposal to expand Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing benefits amid growing concerns that it may be on the chopping block.

“This, to me, is not negotiable,” he said.