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Moderate House Democrats’ stance on infrastructure bill complicates Pelosi’s plan

Nancy Pelosi, wearing a mask, speaks into a microphone
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi received a letter from nine moderate Democrats who are threatening to vote against a $3.5-trillion budget blueprint if the bipartisan infrastructure bill isn’t approved first.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi faced a fresh hurdle Friday to passing President Biden’s multitrillion-dollar domestic policy aspirations, as nine moderate Democrats threatened to derail a budget blueprint crucial to much of that spending.

In a letter to Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the nine said they “will not consider voting” for a budget framework mapping Democrats’ ambitious fiscal plans until the House approves a separate, Senate-passed package of road, broadband and other infrastructure projects and sends it to Biden.

“We simply can’t afford months of unnecessary delays and risk squandering this once-in-a-century, bipartisan infrastructure package,” the centrists wrote.

That’s the opposite of Pelosi’s plan as Democratic leaders strategize how to steer Biden’s agenda through Congress, which the divided party controls by paper-thin margins. She has repeatedly said her chamber won’t vote on the moderate-friendly infrastructure measure — with approximately $1 trillion in new and previously planned spending — until the Senate sends the House a companion $3.5-trillion bundle of social safety net and environmental initiatives favored by progressives.

Progressives have applied their own pressure, with many saying they will oppose the infrastructure measure until the Senate approves the larger social and environmental bill. That measure is unlikely to be ready before autumn.

Democrats have too much at stake to let internal turmoil sink their domestic ambitions, but it was initially unclear how leaders would untie the knot. With Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) facing a similar balancing act between moderates and progressives in his chamber, Biden may eventually need to play a more forceful role to prod rank-and-file lawmakers into line.

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Seeming to take the middle ground, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that officials believe House Democrats will approve “both key elements of the President’s economic agenda,” as Senate Democrats have.

“Both are essential, and we are working closely with Speaker Pelosi and the leadership to get both to the President’s desk,” Psaki said in a written statement.

Biden has consulted with his legislative affairs team about his economic plan’s pathway in the House, the White House said.

The Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill includes funding for water programs in the West and money to help combat wildfires.

Together, the infrastructure and social and environmental bills make up the heart of Biden’s governing goals, and their enactment would stand as two of his legacy achievements as president. But neither wing of his party in Congress fully trusts the other to back both packages, so leaders want to sequence votes in a way that gives neither faction an edge.

In a measured statement, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said anyone opposing the $3.5-trillion measure “is voting against the President’s and the Democrats’ agenda.” Jayapal is chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has nearly 100 House members.

Democrats control the House by just a few votes, giving virtually every one of the party’s 220 members tremendous leverage. And the party runs the 50-50 Senate only with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote.

The House will return to Washington from its summer recess on Aug. 23 to vote on the budget blueprint and perhaps other legislation, giving Biden, Pelosi and other leaders time to decide their next move.

Pelosi, first elected to Congress in 1987 and her party’s leader in the House since 2003, is a seasoned crisis manager and vote counter who was showing no signs on Friday of backing down.

Asked about Pelosi’s next move, a senior House Democratic aide said the party doesn’t have enough votes to pass the infrastructure bill this month. The aide contrasted the nine moderates with the dozens of progressive Democrats who would vote against that measure unless it comes after the Senate sends the House its $3.5-trillion social and environmental bill.

The aide was not authorized to publicly discuss the party’s internal dynamics and spoke on condition of anonymity.

President Biden celebrated the Senate’s bipartisan approval of a $1-trillion infrastructure bill. But his two-track strategy has a long way to go.

Congressional passage of the $3.5-trillion budget blueprint ultimately seems certain because it’s a necessity for Democrats. Without it, Senate Republicans would be able to use a filibuster or procedural delays to kill the actual bill that would follow.

The Senate approved the $1-trillion infrastructure bill Tuesday with a bipartisan vote of 69 to 30. Hours later, the chamber approved the budget blueprint on a party-line 50-49 roll call, telegraphing the partisan pathway that the subsequent $3.5-trillion social and environmental bill faces.

Moderates, including many who represent swing districts and face competitive reelection races next year, are leery of the latter bill because of its massive price tag. Democrats plan to pay for much of it with tax boosts on the wealthy and large corporations, and want it to include provisions crafting a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally — both of which also worry centrist Democrats.

Two of the Senate’s most conservative Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have already said they consider $3.5 trillion too expensive.

The measure would renew tax credits for children, mandate paid family leave, expand Medicare coverage and provide free pre-Kindergarten and community college. There would be increased spending to encourage a shift from carbon to clean-energy fuels, and for housing and home care, and the government would gain the ability to negotiate pharmaceutical prices to drive down prescription drug costs.

Republicans are certain to use campaign ads accusing Democrats who back that huge measure of voting for proposals that will fuel inflation, raise taxes and cost jobs.

Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno was among the Democratic moderates who signed the letter to Pelosi, along with Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia; Ed Case of Hawaii; Henry Cuellar, Vicente Gonzalez and Filemon Vela of Texas; Jared Golden of Maine; Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey; and Kurt Schrader of Oregon.


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