Confronting moderates, House Democratic leaders tried to muscle Joe Biden’s multitrillion-dollar budget blueprint over a key hurdle, working overnight to ease an intraparty showdown that risks upending their domestic infrastructure agenda.
Tensions flared and spilled into early Tuesday as a band of moderates threatened to withhold their votes for the $3.5tn plan. They were demanding the House first approve a $1tn package of road, power grid, broadband and other infrastructure projects that has passed the Senate.
Despite hours of negotiations at the Capitol, the House chamber came to a standstill and plans were thrown into flux as leaders and lawmakers huddled privately to broker an agreement. Shortly after midnight, leaders announced no further votes would be taken until Tuesday’s session.
The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, implored Democrats not to miss this chance to deliver on the promises Biden and the party have made to Americans.
“Right now, we have an opportunity to pass something so substantial for our country, so transformative we haven’t seen anything like it,” Pelosi said, according to a person who requested anonymity to disclose the private comments.
Pelosi told the party it was “unfortunate” they were discussing the process when they should be debating the policy.
“We cannot squander this majority and this Democratic White House by not passing what we need to do,” she said.
With Republicans fully opposed to the president’s big plans, Democratic leaders were trying to engineer a way out of a potentially devastating standoff between the party’s moderate and progressive wings.
Pelosi’s leadership sought to persuade lawmakers to take a procedural vote to simply start the process and save the policy fight for the months ahead, when they will be crafting and debating details within the full $3.5tn budget proposal.
Powerful committee chairmen urged their colleagues to move forward.
But it soon became clear that moderates were not on board and as soon as one meeting broke, other private sessions were convened, including in Pelosi’s office. At one point, takeout food was delivered. A night of scheduled votes came to an unexpected standstill.
Nine moderate Democrats signed on to a letter late last week raising their objections to pushing ahead with Biden’s infrastructure proposal without first considering the smaller public works plan that has already passed the Senate. Other moderates raised similar concerns in recent days.
“I’m bewildered by my party’s misguided strategy to make passage of the popular, already written, bipartisan infrastructure bill contingent upon passage of the contentious, yet-to-be-written, partisan reconciliation bill,” wrote Stephanie Murphy of Florida, a leader of the centrist Blue Dog caucus, in the Orlando Sentinel.
“It’s bad policy and, yes, bad politics.”
In the narrowly divided House, every vote matters and a few dissenters could conceivably end the Democratic majority’s hopes for passing any proposal. With most of Biden’s domestic agenda at stake, it’s unimaginable that Pelosi would allow an embarrassing defeat.
That’s especially true because the package is stocked with priorities like childcare, paid family leave and a Medicare expansion that are hard-fought party goals. It also comes as the president is already under criticism over his handling of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The $3.5tn budget resolution is at the heart of Biden’s “Build Back Better” vision for helping families and combating climate change and is progressives’ top priority, largely financed with tax increases on the rich and big business.
But the moderates insist Congress quickly send the smaller, bipartisan infrastructure measure to Biden so he can sign it before political winds shift. That would nail down a victory they could point to in their re-election campaigns next year.
“The House can’t afford to wait months or do anything to risk passing” the infrastructure bill, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, a leader of the nine moderate mavericks, said late last week.
The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, underscored Biden’s support for Pelosi’s plans. Psaki deemed it a “healthy debate” within the party and said that it was “a high-class problem to have” as Democrats debate the particulars of the legislation.
Progressives were more forceful. Cori Bush, of Missouri, said the budget “isn’t a political pawn. It’s an opportunity to deliver on our agenda … We are not here to play politics with people’s lives – we are here to pass transformative policies.”
Republicans said the $3.5tn effort fails to address “the crisis that American families are facing” and would lead to higher inflation and deficits.
“The inflation crisis, the border crisis, the energy crisis, the Afghanistan crisis – this budget only makes it worse,” said Jason Smith of Missouri, top Republican on the House budget committee.