House Democrats still scrounging for votes as party factions clash over $3.5 trillion budget

Source: By Tony Romm, Washington Post • Posted: Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Lawmakers couldn’t reach a deal Monday night and vowed to try again Tuesday.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) arrives for a House Democratic caucus meeting amid ongoing negotiations over budget and infrastructure legislation at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. Aug. 24, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The standoff stemmed from a bloc of nine moderate Democrats, who have threatened to vote against the tax-and-spending plan out of concerns about the process — a move that would ensure its temporary defeat. Even after calls and meetings that stretched into the early hours of the morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her Democratic allies still did not appear to have a final deal in hand.

The uncertainty loomed large as Democrats met hours later Tuesday to discuss their next steps. Centrist lawmakers have held up the budget to force the House to debate another Biden priority, infrastructure reform, in a move that has pit the party’s factions against each other over their shared political goals.

One potential solution under discussion would see Democrats proceed as planned on the budget while guaranteeing a vote by September 27 on fixes to the country’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections, according to two people familiar with the matter who requested anonymity to describe the private talks.

While some moderates appear supportive of the idea, it remains unclear if the compromise is enough to assuage the full group led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), without whom Pelosi does not have the votes to advance the budget given Democrats possess only a slim advantage in the House.

Neither Pelosi nor Gottheimer immediately responded to a request for comment. Speaking privately to the caucus, the speaker told lawmakers she felt they are “close to landing the plane,” the sources said.

The $3.5 trillion budget is a centerpiece of Biden’s economic agenda, enabling Democrats to begin crafting much more detailed spending plans that Pelosi hopes to adopt in September. Their blueprint opens the door for an expansion of Medicare, a series of new investments in education and family safety net programs and new initiatives to fight climate change, fulfilling Democrats’ 2020 campaign pledges. Party lawmakers also hope to finance the new spending through tax increases targeting wealthy corporations, families and investors.

Democrats broadly support the aims of that package, which they hope to adopt through a process known as reconciliation — a move enabled by the budget that allows them to sidestep Republican opposition and a guaranteed filibuster in the Senate. But the tactic essentially requires Democrats to stay united, a tough task given the political fissures that nearly have sank the budget blueprint this week.

At the center of the battle are Gottheimer and eight other moderate House Democrats. The bloc of lawmakers for weeks had threatened to vote against the budget out of concern about its timing — arguing the House instead should have first considered then approved a bipartisan, roughly $1.2 trillion bill to improve the nation’s infrastructure. Both bills cleared the Senate earlier this year.

Pelosi opted to consider the budget, adhering to the demands of liberal lawmakers within her caucus, which earlier this year had threatened to scuttle the infrastructure bill if Democratic leaders did not comply. That soured centrists, who felt that Pelosi risked squandering a rare opportunity to adopt long-stalled public-works spending that had already garnered significant support from Democrats and Republicans alike.

For days, Pelosi sought to muscle aside the opposition, aiming to hold a key procedural vote Monday. She implored the caucus to act expediently in public and private letters, a pressure campaign aided by Biden and his top aides, who had called around to moderate lawmakers as recently as Monday to try to shore up votes for the budget.

To escape the logjam, Pelosi and her aides also signaled they would commit to advancing infrastructure reform before October in an attempt to assuage moderates who felt that the work on the budget — and then the reconciliation package — would stall the new public-works spending for months.

But Pelosi’s commitment — one she and other Democrats had made in the past anyway — still did not seem to assuage Gottheimer and his centrist allies who raised political and procedural objections to the idea, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the group’s thinking. The standoff left Democratic leaders scrambling, leading to a series of late night calls and meetings that halted work Monday lapsed past midnight.

In doing so, moderates gained a new ally in fellow centrist Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who took to the pages of a local newspaper late Monday to lend her support to the fight. Murphy wrote she is “bewildered by my party’s misguided strategy,” adding: “I cannot in good conscience vote to start the reconciliation process unless we also finish our work on the infrastructure bill.”

A failed vote would mark a major setback for Democrats’ economic ambitions and a fresh black eye for the Biden administration, which has absorbed its fair share of political blows at a time when the pandemic is worsening and new troubles, such as the country’s exit from Afghanistan, are harming the president in the polls.

Even success, however, may portend additional political heartburn. The debate this week has illustrated the fragility and fractiousness of the Democratic caucus, where moderates and progressives at times have found themselves at odds over their priorities and how to achieve them. The near-collapse of the budget vote may foreshadow similarly perilous battles to come as lawmakers get to work in turning the blueprint into fuller legislation.