Progressive Democrats’ concerns that their more centrist colleagues won’t support President Joe Biden’s larger spending and tax agenda are starting to bear out.
Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, a member of the fiscally conscious Blue Dog Coalition, said in an interview that he’s planning to vote against a budget resolution that would include reconciliation instructions for trillions of dollars in additional spending. Another moderate House Democrat, who requested anonymity to speak freely about a position that would upset party leaders, said the same.
With those two expected “no” votes, Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t have much more room to maneuver on that first step toward passing a big spending bill, let alone the reconciliation legislation itself that would contain all the details.
She can only lose two more Democratic votes and still adopt the budget resolution in her narrowly divided 220-211 chamber, since no Republicans are likely to vote for it, as budget resolutions are designed to be partisan wish lists.
The budget resolution is needed to begin the reconciliation process, which Democrats can use to get around a Senate filibuster and pass a partisan spending and tax bill without Republican support. But it requires their party to remain fully united in the Senate, given the chamber’s 50-50 split and Vice President Kamala Harris’ ability to break a tie, and mostly united in the House where their narrow majority can only spare four Democratic votes.
Progressives worry that Senate and House moderates who helped negotiate the bipartisan deal for $579 billion in new infrastructure spending won’t provide the votes needed to pass a reconciliation package that could top $5 trillion in additional spending.
The bipartisan deal is mostly focused on physical infrastructure, like roads, bridges and transit, as well as related things like broadband and clean energy. The reconciliation bill would include potentially more infrastructure spending, as well as funding for other Biden priorities like climate initiatives, child care and education assistance and national paid leave.
And Democrats want to pay for all of that with tax increases on wealthy individuals and large corporations, which were left out of the bipartisan deal amid Republican opposition.
Dozens of progressive Democrats in both chambers have threatened to vote against the bipartisan bill if their moderate colleagues don’t commit to backing the reconciliation package.
With those dynamics in mind, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer have come up with a procedural strategy to link the two bills.
The Senate will attempt to pass the bipartisan bill, as well as a budget resolution with reconciliation instructions in July. Pelosi will then hold the bipartisan bill in the House until the budget resolution gets adopted by both chambers and the Senate passes the broader reconciliation bill executing the spending and revenue policy called for in the budget resolution.
Obstacles not just in Senate
Most Democrats who have been worried about their moderate colleagues blocking the reconciliation bill have been focused on potential Senate opposition from the likes of West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema. Both Manchin and Sinema said Thursday they’re happy to work on the reconciliation bill but declined to offer any specific commitments on supporting it without any details.
"There's going to be a reconciliation bill,” Manchin said. “We just don't know what size it's going to be."
But in the House, there may not be enough commitment to doing a reconciliation bill at all if Schrader’s opposition is any indication.
“I'm not voting for reconciliation,” Schrader said, confirming that applies to both the budget resolution with the reconciliation instructions and any bill that results from those spending and revenue targets.
“I think the reconciliation process is completely unwarranted. I'm not going to vote for $5 trillion of spending. We spent $5 trillion last year,” he said referring to a rough total of the various coronavirus relief packages Congress enacted. “And I'd argue most all that [was] pretty God-dang important to keep America alive. This year, we don't need it. Businesses are dying to open. They're starting to open. COVID is getting behind us.”
Schrader argues all the spending on the coronavirus relief has contributed to the recent spike in inflation and that it’s time for Democrats to “ratchet down our spending.” He does, however, support the bipartisan deal with $579 billion in new spending, which tracks in many areas with a framework he and other members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus endorsed.
While Schrader doesn’t know how other moderate Democrats will vote on the budget resolution, he thinks there will be “enough,” meaning five or more, to oppose a reconciliation package that spends trillions of dollars.
“There's a big group of us that are very concerned about the level of spending,” he said. “I don't want to say a big group but enough [of a] group to say, 'No we're not going to do that. It's time to get serious.'”
Schrader said he told House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer that he planned to vote against the budget resolution, but that he hadn’t yet communicated that to Pelosi or House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth. He said leadership can’t convince him to change his position, although their pleas may have an effect on others who have concerns.
The other moderate Democrat who didn’t want to speak publicly about plans to vote against the budget resolution is opposed to spending $4 trillion or more as called for in Biden’s economic plans. It’s unclear if that member could be swayed to back a budget resolution with lower reconciliation targets than are currently being contemplated.
Yarmuth has said his budget’s reconciliation spending target would likely be around $5 trillion, but in an interview Thursday he said he personally doesn’t care what amount Democrats settle on so long as they can get a bill done.
“I accept whatever can get enough votes, because we don't have margins to play with,” the Kentucky Democrat said.
Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a leading progressive voice, has also indicated that his spending target is flexible based on what the rest of the Democratic Caucus will support.
“I think $6 trillion is the appropriate amount of money to address the crises facing this country,” he said. “But obviously I have to work with 49 other senators to come up with a bill.”
‘Treat this differently’
Yarmuth was not surprised to hear that Schrader was opposed but said he’s optimistic other moderate Democrats can be sold on voting for the budget.
“One Blue Dog told me, 'I'm going to vote for whatever it is.' And I think most people recognize that if we're going to do anything, we just kind of have to treat this differently like every vote is needed,” he said. “And most people understand that. And I'm sure that the speaker will have conversations with those who don't.”
The concept of treating this differently requires Democrats who like the bipartisan infrastructure bill but don’t want to spend beyond that to buy into their leadership’s strategy of linking the bipartisan and reconciliation bills. Pelosi said Thursday the House won’t vote on the bipartisan deal until both that and the larger reconciliation measure make it out of the Senate.
Schrader questioned that strategy, saying, “I wouldn't want to be the Democrat standing in the way of a bipartisan infrastructure bill. It doesn't seem like a good way to go to me.”
But Pelosi has backing from Schumer and Biden in linking the two measures. Biden said Thursday he won’t sign the bipartisan bill if he doesn’t also get the reconciliation package.
“If this is the only thing that comes to me, I'm not signing it. It's in tandem,” the president said.
The moderate Democrat who wanted to remain anonymous predicts that strategy won’t hold, saying the Senate likely won’t pass the reconciliation measure over intraparty disagreements and that Biden will push for action on the bipartisan bill after that to ensure he has some sort of a win.
But progressives and even Democratic leaders are warning that if moderates tank the reconciliation bill, the bipartisan bill will go down with it.
“You don't even have votes for the one unless you have the votes for the other,” Schumer said.
The strategy may ultimately rest with Biden, who made clear Thursday that passing an infrastructure bill was not only paramount to his domestic agenda but his global ambitions as well.
“This agreement signals to the world that we can function, deliver, and do significant things,” he said. "These investments represent the kind of national effort that, throughout our history, has literally ... transformed America and propelled us into the future."
Schrader said if Biden wants to pass the bipartisan bill, then he could probably convince Pelosi and others in the party to budge.
“I think at the end of the day she has historically been a person who likes to get some things done, so if the president of the United States says 'jump,' I would hope that we would all say, 'Yeah, this looks pretty good,' especially because it's a bipartisan bill,” he said. “Congress needs a good bipartisan win right now.”