House passes $3.5 trillion budget plan, aims to vote on infrastructure package by late September

Source: By Tony Romm, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The measure also sets in motion a potential House vote on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill in late September

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)

House Democrats on Tuesday approved a roughly $3.5 trillion budget that could enable sweeping changes to the nation’s healthcare, education and tax laws, overcoming internal divisions in a debate that could foreshadow even tougher battles still to come.

The 220-212 vote came after days of delays as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) scrambled to stave off a revolt from her party’s moderate-leaning lawmakers. With the frenzy resolved, the chamber averted what would have been a political embarrassment to take the next step in enacting President Biden’s broader economic agenda.

The budget debacle also paved the way for the House to hold a vote on a second economic package — a roughly $1 trillion proposal to improve the nation’s roads, bridges, pipes and ports — by September 27. The new commitment cemented a deal to win over skeptical centrists, who feared the infrastructure bill otherwise would have been mired in significant setbacks.

The $3.5 trillion budget enables lawmakers to begin crafting a fuller legislative proposal, which Democratic leaders hope to adopt next month. The package is expected to expand Medicare, invest sizable sums in education and family-focused programs, and devote new funds toward combating climate change — fulfilling many of Democrats’ 2020 campaign pledges.

Party lawmakers hope to finance the tranche of new spending through tax increases targeting wealthy corporations, families and investors, rolling back tax cuts imposed under former President Donald Trump. Many of the ideas originate in the jobs and families plans that Biden debuted earlier this year.

“A national budget should be a statement of our national values,” Pelosi said before the House began voting. “And this will be the case.”

Democrats broadly support the goals of the package, which they hope to adopt through a process known as reconciliation — a move that allows them to sidestep a guaranteed Republican filibuster in the Senate. In a sign of the staunch opposition they are soon to face, every House GOP lawmaker on Tuesday voted against the budget, which also set in motion a chamber debate over reforms to federal election laws.

But Democrats’ tactics still require the party itself to stay united, a tough task given the political fissures that surfaced this week — and nearly sank the process before it could begin in earnest

At the center of the battle were nine moderate party lawmakers led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.). The group for weeks had threatened to vote against the budget out of concern about its timing — arguing the House instead should have considered the bipartisan infrastructure bill given the country’s urgent needs. Both proposals cleared the Senate this month, with the public-works package receiving overwhelming GOP support.

Pelosi instead proceeded with her original plans, backed her caucus’s liberal lawmakers, who earlier this year had threatened to mobilize their nearly 100 members against infrastructure if Democratic leaders did not start with reconciliation. The resulting stalemate left Pelosi in a fraught political position, since Democrats have only a narrow, three-vote advantage in the House, and little room to alienate either influential bloc of lawmakers.

In the end, Democrats reached a compromise that allowed them to forge ahead — with a commitment that the House intends to vote on the infrastructure proposal late next month. Democrats insisted the target date is more than symbolic, even though it mostly adheres to Pelosi’s earlier pledge to tackle public-works spending before October 1, when some federal highway programs are set to expire anyway.

The resolution nonetheless staved off what would have been 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 imperiled exit from Afghanistan, are harming the president in the polls. It also averted rare defeat for Pelosi, who has labored throughout her career as speaker to ensure Democratic divisions don’t result in defeats on the House floor.

But the speaker’s victory quickly threatened to be short lived.

Serious schisms still separate two factions in the House over how much to spend as part of the future reconciliation package, and the extent to which Democrats should finance it through tax increases. The feuds are just as pronounced in the Senate, where moderates including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) already have signaled they won’t support a final proposal with a $3.5 trillion price tag.

In a sign of the tough trek to come, the roughly 100-member strong Congressional Progressive Caucus on Tuesday fired a fresh warning shot. The bloc praised passage of the budget even as it reissued its threat to vote against infrastructure until a reconciliation package is finished.

“Our position remains unchanged: we will work to first pass the Build Back Better reconciliation bill so we can deliver these once-in-a-generation, popular, and urgently needed investments to poor and working families, and then pass the infrastructure bill to invest in our roads, bridges, and waterways,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the caucus.

Moderates, however, sought to send their own new message — suggesting there are limits to what they’re willing to accept as Democrats begin their work to assemble the new reconciliation proposal. Some centrists appeared to be trying to ward off the possibility that they may have to take tough votes on controversial policies that the Senate is unlikely to adopt anyway.

“We want to see it done in a common sense way that reflects the reality of what the Senate is willing to agree to, and what the House is willing to agree to, and we know that that’s different than some of the aspirational levers that some of our colleagues have,” said Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), one of the nine who initially threatened to oppose the budget. “We’re not going to vote on a measure that doesn’t have 51 votes in the Senate.”

The budget is a centerpiece of Biden’s economic agenda, opening the door for Democrats to pursue spending the president endorsed as part of jobs and families plans he unveiled earlier this year. Along with expanding Medicare, it aims to lower prescription drug costs for millions of seniors and expand other federal safety net programs, including those that benefit low-income families. Democrats also seek to reform the country’s immigration system, ensure housing is more affordable and make it easier for Americans to obtain sick leave and child care.

The House vote follows weeks after the Senate adopted the blueprint, chiefly authored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the leader of the chamber’s budget committee. Sanders and other lawmakers have described the spending they have proposed as transformational, likening it to the Great Society and New Deal programs that helped jumpstart the American economy.