House Democrats to huddle amid simmering tensions over Biden’s big economic agenda

Source: By Tony Romm and Marianna Sotomayor, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, September 27, 2021

Pelosi is trying to navigate her caucus through crucial decisions this week on taxes and spending

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at a Sept. 23 news conference alongside Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The full caucus meeting, called by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), sets the stage for an intensely busy next few days on Capitol Hill, where Democrats have pledged to advance critical components of President Biden’s broader economic agenda — all the while adopting must-pass measures that include a bill to prevent a government shutdown.

But some of the upcoming House work already is shrouded in political bickering between moderate and liberal-leaning party lawmakers — a standoff that Pelosi must resolve to avoid a rare embarrassment on the House floor.

Centrists have demanded a vote on a proposal to improve the country’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections, which Pelosi has tentatively set for Thursday. More-liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have threatened to oppose the public-works measure, hoping to use it as leverage to secure a second, roughly $3.5 trillion package that moderates for months have tried to whittle down. The latter proposal aims to raise taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations to pay for a number of new programs to expand health care, improve education and combat climate change.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Biden sounded a note of optimism. “I think things are going to go well. I think we’re going to get it done,” he said, later adding: “It may not be by the end of the week. I hope it’s by the end of the week.”

In a sign of growing discord, though, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told The Early 202 that there are now 60 Democrats who would vote against the bipartisan infrastructure bill if the vote were held before Democrats finalized and adopted their $3.5 trillion plan. That includes roughly half of the members from her bloc of 100 lawmakers and other Democrats who have said they want to ensure Congress enacts spending to help minority communities that have long faced economic and social disparities.

Other left-leaning lawmakers independently issued their own threats on Monday. “Let’s be clear: there’s no passing the infrastructure bill without passing the Build Back Better Act,” tweeted Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), referring to the $3.5 trillion measure.

The disagreements prime Democratic lawmakers for a tense gathering Monday evening, even though Pelosi in recent days has sought to downplay any notion of discord within her caucus. In a note to lawmakers over the weekend, she described the upcoming flurry of activity as a “week of opportunity,” pledging the House would fund the government and adopt the trillions in new spending that Biden supports.

The White House, meanwhile, offered its support to Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) as they try to assuage their majorities and adopt policies that the president first proposed earlier this spring.

“Democrats have been engaged in a healthy debate about how to make our economy deliver for the middle class — not just those at the top — and we now have a generational opportunity to find consensus and unity to realize our shared values,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement.

The first step in that long legislative slog was to come Monday, with the House set to begin debating the roughly $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan that cleared the Senate last month. Moderate Democrats in the House have held firm in seeking its consideration this week, with a group of centrists led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) continuing to hold Pelosi to her earlier promise to begin debating the legislation on Monday.

In the meantime, Democrats across the Capitol still appeared far apart over the second, up-to-$3.5 trillion measure, which aims to offer new Medicare benefits, provide free community college and prekindergarten and approve a bevy of tax aid for low-income Americans. Centrists led by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) continue to demand a smaller price tag and fewer tax hikes, which liberals do not support.

Fearing their ambitions could be scaled back too dramatically, Jayapal and her bloc of liberal lawmakers in the Congressional Progressive Caucus have intensified their threats, raising the stakes they could deny Pelosi the votes she needs later this week. The speaker can afford to lose only three Democrats in the chamber, and Republicans are unlikely to help pass the infrastructure bill, aiming to deliver Biden a defeat.

Other Democrats in recent days have raised their voices anew to protect the broad policy sweep of the still-forming $3.5 trillion tax-and-spending package. Members of Congressional Tri-Caucus, which represents members with Hispanic, Black and Asian Pacific Islander backgrounds, said that Democrats should couple new improvements in the physical roadways that would help their communities with social-safety-net priorities that will aid their families, including child care, universal pre-K and health-care access.

But centrist lawmakers affirmed their expectations as well: The nine Democrats who helped secure the debate starting Monday on infrastructure issued their own statement, highlighting the fact a vote should occur “no later than Thursday.”

“The American people have waited long enough for the jobs and investment this bill will deliver. It’s time to send the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill to the President’s desk for his signature,” said Gottheimer and other lawmakers including Reps. Ed Case (D-Hawaii), Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-Ga.).

Appearing Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” the House speaker doubled down on her plans to forge ahead even amid growing signs of discord. But she also acknowledged she does not intend to put a bill before the full House that “that doesn’t have the votes.”

The feuds have ensnarled the White House in recent days, prompting Biden personally to intervene to try to save the bulk of his first-term agenda from collapse. He gathered moderate and liberal lawmakers at the White House last week, with talks that continued into the weekend, according to a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the president’s involvement. The aide said that there is “strong resolve” throughout the caucus for passing the two bills.

Jacqueline Alemany contributed to this report.