House moderates may oppose budget without infrastructure vote

Centrist Democrats want Pelosi to drop her plans to hold the bipartisan bill until Senate action on reconciliation

Rep. Ed Case says he would not be able to vote for the budget resolution without a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Ed Case says he would not be able to vote for the budget resolution without a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 2, 2021 at 5:31am

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plan to link the Senate’s $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure plan to a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package is starting to backfire, as moderate Democrats warn they may not vote for a budget resolution needed to begin the reconciliation process unless it’s paired with a vote on the Senate bill. 

Rep. Ed Case said in an interview Friday that he wouldn’t be able to vote for the budget resolution without Pelosi also committing to holding a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The Senate is planning to vote on both measures in the next week or two. 

“I have many concerns with a proposed $3.5 trillion budget resolution,” the Hawaii Democrat said. “Those are separate concerns from the linkage to the infrastructure bill. But for the purposes that we’re talking about here, I do not support the speaker’s insistence that this bill would not pass without the budget resolution, so I hope she changes her mind because I can’t — I don’t support the direction that she has taken.” 

Case said he’s “not at all alone” in his thinking, which interviews with other members confirmed. 

“There are more than the necessary number of people that are concerned,” he said. “If in fact that concern translates into a vote, then no, a budget resolution would not move in the House.”

The necessary number of Democrats needed to block action on a budget resolution, which will contain reconciliation instructions for committees to draft a partisan $3.5 trillion spending package, is four. Pelosi can lose no more than three Democrats on party-line votes after Friday’s swearing-in of Texas Republican Jake Ellzey. He was elected to succeed Rep. Ron Wright, who died of COVID-19 complications in February.

At least half a dozen Democrats have expressed reservations about voting for the budget resolution if Pelosi declines to bring up the bipartisan infrastructure bill after the Senate sends it to the House — although each with varying degrees of commitments. The strongest was a “hell no” from Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, who had already planned to vote against the budget resolution because he’s opposed to the level of spending. 

Schrader, however, said most Democrats in the fiscally conscious Blue Dog Coalition would likely object to voting on a budget that enables the partisan spending package without action on the bipartisan infrastructure bill too.

“I think that’d be a pretty easy no when it comes to all of us,” he said. 

Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., said it “would be tough” for her to vote for the budget resolution without action on the bipartisan bill.

“In the bipartisan infrastructure bill are critical needs for New Jersey, like the Gateway tunnel project. So I would have real trouble not voting for that,” she said. 

Competing pressures

Some Democrats, however, don’t believe they’ll be faced with that choice.

“I believe if there is a bipartisan bill passed out of the Senate and it’s ready to come over here, we will vote on it. I don’t buy into your scenario,” said New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the Democratic co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. “I think the president will want us to vote on it.”

President Joe Biden has said he wants both the bipartisan and partisan spending bills to pass while leaving the scheduling decisions to congressional leaders. 

And Pelosi has made abundantly clear her intention to hold the bipartisan bill in the House until the Senate passes a reconciliation package with trillions of dollars in spending on Democratic priorities like child care, education, paid leave and climate programs. 

The California Democrat has repeated various forms of this statement almost every time she’s addressed the press in recent weeks: “We will not take up the infrastructure bill until the Senate passes the reconciliation bill.” 

Pelosi is far from alone in wanting to link the two bills to ensure they will both pass. Progressives pushing Biden’s “care” economy proposals that would make up the bulk of the $3.5 trillion partisan package say they won’t vote for the bipartisan bill before the Senate acts on the reconciliation package, which would be no earlier than September but could easily stretch further into the fall. 

Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio wants to use that time to negotiate changes to the Senate’s infrastructure bill to accommodate key policy provisions on climate change and rural transportation issues in a House-passed transportation funding reauthorization bill. 

“It’ll sit for a very long time, which would give us an opportunity to engage the experts, the committees of jurisdiction, as opposed to the 10 random people involved in writing this bill, and propose changes and see what agreements we could come to and then talk about a path forward,” the Oregon Democrat said. 

But moderate House Democrats have become increasingly vocal about their opposition to Pelosi’s “hold” strategy. Leaders of the Blue Dog Coalition and the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which have some membership overlap, have put out statements and signed letters saying the House needs to quickly vote on the bipartisan bill after the Senate passes it. 

Although those statements have not linked the bipartisan bill to the budget, the decision from moderates to do so could prove an effective counterstrategy to the hard-line position Pelosi and progressives have taken.

In the even more narrowly divided Senate, where Democrats can’t afford to lose a single vote, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has secured unity so far among his caucus by setting up a dual-track process under which the chamber plans to send both the bipartisan bill and the budget resolution to the House before departing for its August recess. 

August action?

The House adjourned Friday for its August recess. Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said he may call the chamber back in August to adopt the budget resolution, but the exact timing is uncertain.

“I’ve told members that’s an option,” the Maryland Democrat said. “We don’t want to have the budget sitting out there for a very long period of time.”

Hoyer is not concerned that moderates will withhold their votes on the budget resolution to secure a vote on the bipartisan bill. 

“If the Senate passes a budget resolution, we’ll pass it,” he said. 

But many moderates have not made up their minds, and leadership’s efforts to persuade them will be more difficult once members are back home in their districts. Leaders typically use vote series, caucus meetings and other gatherings to lay on the pressure when they’re whipping legislation. 

“Assuming the Senate sends us a bipartisan [bill] and we don’t act on that first, yes, I’d be disappointed, and it would have repercussions in my estimation,” said Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn. 

The Minnesota Democrat said the infrastructure bill and the budget resolution “should stand on their own two feet, and whichever foot comes first is the one that we should act upon.”

Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, also believes the House should take up the bipartisan bill quickly. “It’s hard to say” whether that should be linked to action on the budget resolution, he said, noting he’s “not convinced” yet on supporting it. 

“We’ve got to go through the details and make sure that it’s the right thing for the American people and that we’re not overdoing ourselves, but there’s a lot of great investments in America on that budget resolution,” he said. “But this bipartisan infrastructure bill is something that we need to get on the floor.”

Fellow Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar also said he’s undecided on the budget, citing the “large numbers” and uncertainty on how the $3.5 trillion would be spent and offset. 

“It depends what you’re going to be doing on that, but I still say if you have a bird in your hand, it’d be good to look at,” he said of the bipartisan bill. 

However, unlike most moderates, Cuellar is not demanding immediate action on the bipartisan bill because he supports DeFazio’s push to add some of the House language. “There are some adjustments we need to do,” he said. 

Other moderates who want the House to take up the bipartisan bill quickly after the Senate passes it said they don’t see it as linked to the budget resolution or the implementing reconciliation package. 

“​​Not for me,” said Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz. “But I’m a big backer of child care, the exemptions and things like that. I want to see that happen.”

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who likes “broad strokes” of the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation plan and the details she’s seen on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, said Democrats across the spectrum need to stop linking the two. 

“I don’t like either side of the discussion where it’s like, ‘Well, you know, I’ll do yours if you do mine,’” the Virginia Democrat said. “I think they’re both important pieces of legislation. And we just muddy the waters when we talk about them as though they’re one thing because they’re actually two different pieces of legislation.”

“Not to give it this silly metaphor for it,” Spanberger added, “but one is like the pasta dinner and one is like the decadent ice cream sundae. They’re two separate things. And you can like them both.”