Intraparty Squabble Casts Shadow over Democrats’ Fiscal Agenda


September 7, 2021 6:00 am

House Democrats secured a temporary truce last month in their internal dispute over economic priorities, but the solution to their standoff all but guarantees another clash by the end of September.

The disagreement between the party’s moderate and progressive wings is ostensibly over the sequencing of two big bills that make up the bulk of President Joe Biden’s economic agenda. A Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill would provide $550 billion in new spending on roads, bridges, transit, broadband and water projects, and a mostly unwritten partisan budget reconciliation package could add another $3.5 trillion on “human” infrastructure, including subsidies for child care, education, paid leave, health care, clean energy programs and more.

The crux of the dispute, however, is about which faction would have the most leverage over the reconciliation package, which House committees are putting together in markups that began last week. The filibuster-proof reconciliation process allows Democrats to pass their economic priorities without Republican support, but they must be unified since they can’t lose a single vote in the Senate or more than three in the House. 

Progressives want the infrastructure and reconciliation bills linked to ensure moderates don’t sink or water down the latter. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., embraced the strategy, repeatedly promising the House would not take up the infrastructure bill until the Senate passed the reconciliation package. But moderates balked, saying Democrats should claim the win from the infrastructure bill and then have a debate about the size and scope of the reconciliation package. 

The tensions came to a head in late August as the House considered the fiscal 2022 budget resolution containing instructions for the reconciliation bill. Ten moderates publicly threatened to vote against the budget without the House voting first on the infrastructure bill, the same order that occurred in the Senate.

The moderates relented after securing language ensuring the House will consider the infrastructure bill by Sept. 27. They also received a separate commitment from leadership that the House will “pre-conference” the reconciliation package with the Senate.

The initial group of nine moderates who threatened to vote against the budget — Reps. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Ed Case of Hawaii, Kurt Schrader of Oregon, Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia, Jared Golden of Maine, Jim Costa of California and Texans Filemon VelaHenry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez — issued a statement claiming their strategy succeeded. 

“This agreement does what we set out to do: secure a standalone vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, send it to the president’s desk, and then separately consider the reconciliation package,” they said. “It will receive standalone consideration, fully delinked, and on its own merits.”

But progressives didn’t see it that way. 

“Our position remains unchanged: we will work to first pass the … 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,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said in a statement. “The two are integrally tied together, and we will only vote for the infrastructure bill after passing the reconciliation bill.” 

Both sides believe they’ve got the leverage needed to execute their dueling strategies.

“What this little ‘private equity caucus’ has shown is that they’re erratic,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said of the moderate rebels, in an apparent dig at some members’ ties to financial services and investment firms. “And there’s not much you can do with kind of an erratic group like that, aside from keep a steady course.” 

Progressives say a majority of their 96-member caucus is willing to vote against the infrastructure bill unless the Senate first passes a reconciliation package that fulfills their top priorities — such as affordable housing and climate programs, lowering prescription drug costs and expanding Medicare and providing a path to citizenship for certain categories of undocumented immigrants. 

“The commitment on this strategy to move both of these pieces simultaneously still remains,” Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., the Progressive Caucus whip, said.

The only thing that would take away progressives’ leverage is if enough House Republicans support the infrastructure bill to offset their opposition. 

If the infrastructure bill had been brought up for a vote last month as moderates initially demanded, there would have been “a significant number” of Republicans supporting it, “potentially” more than 40, according to Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa. But now he’s not sure if those numbers will hold.

“A lot of them, their support was contingent upon it not being in any way, shape or form tied to reconciliation. Now, many of them are going to view this as being tied,” Fitzpatrick said. “Some of them will view it as not being tied. And that’s what I need to find out.”

Fitzpatrick, who co-chairs the Problem Solvers Caucus with Gottheimer, said his Democratic colleagues in the caucus made a deal they felt was necessary but it’s “certainly not the way I would have played my hand.”

Timing matters 

Democratic leaders are trying to avoid those obstacles to the infrastructure bill by getting the reconciliation bill done first. Although they’ve not officially made any scheduling decisions, leaders indicated they want to bring the reconciliation package to the floor the week of Sept. 20. 

“That is ambitious given the amount of conversations that need to be had between the two chambers,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy said. The Florida Democrat became the 10th moderate to publicly threaten to oppose the budget after leadership rebuffed her efforts to negotiate privately on scheduling the infrastructure vote and de-linking it from reconciliation.

One of the things Murphy and others successfully pushed for is to have the House pre-conference the reconciliation package with the Senate. The moderates want to ensure whatever the House passes can get the support of all 50 Senate Democrats, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to break a tie.

“We’re not going to vote on a measure that doesn’t have 51 votes in the Senate,” Costa said. 

The reconciliation package won’t be ready to assemble until the House committees finish their individual markups, the last of which are expected to wrap up by the nonbinding Sept. 15 deadline written into the budget resolution. It’s likely to take more than a week to get Democrats in both chambers to unify around a final product, especially with Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., calling to “hit the pause button” on the measure given a variety of economic unknowns.

One thing that could take some time is getting the Senate parliamentarian to issue opinions on which provisions comply with the Byrd rule, named for its author, former Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. The rule requires policies included in reconciliation to have a budget impact that is not just “merely incidental,” among other stipulations.

There are several policies Democrats want to include that Republicans are likely to challenge under the Byrd rule, like providing a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, extending Medicare-negotiated prescription drug price limits to private insurers and taxing carbon-intensive imports.

Moderates want any language that doesn’t comply with the Senate rules removed before the House votes on it, unlike in March when the House passed a coronavirus relief measure including a provision to raise the minimum wage that was stripped in the Senate after the parliamentarian deemed it merely incidental.  

The group of 10 moderates, plus allies who never took their concerns public in the budget fight, are also planning to make sure the House doesn’t assemble a package that’s too big to get through the Senate. Manchin and fellow moderates Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have said they won’t support the $3.5 trillion topline leadership and the White House have set.

The House centrists are working with their Senate counterparts to identify “what revenues are acceptable and where spending should be,” Murphy said. “We are having these conversations, irrespective of what our committees and the committee staff are doing.” 

But Murphy, the only member of the moderate group who serves on the tax-writing Ways and Means panel, communicates regularly with committee staff and leadership about what policies are unlikely to get enough moderate votes. “I think it’s my responsibility to send up an early signal,” she said.

If moderates’ input isn’t incorporated in committee markups, they will have leverage to influence the final product before it reaches the floor. They’re prepared to reluctantly oppose the reconciliation package or the House rule that will be needed to bring it to the floor as a last resort.

“My hope is that leadership is open to all the voices within their caucus, so that we can avoid any last-minute scrambles,” Murphy said.