Democrats to meet on budget as moderate holdouts face pressure

Nine moderates are in a standoff with leaders that could prevent the budget's adoption this week

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., is part of the group of nine moderates. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., is part of the group of nine moderates. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 23, 2021 at 3:13pm


Hours before a procedural vote needed to kick off debate on the fiscal 2022 budget resolution, nine moderate Democrats were engaged in a standoff with their leadership that could prevent the House from adopting the budget this week.

House Democrats have scheduled a caucus meeting for 5:30 p.m. in an attempt to break through the impasse ahead of the 6:30 p.m. procedural vote.

In a Monday letter to colleagues, Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote that the meeting was intended to chart a path forward on both the not-yet-written $3.5 trillion reconciliation package of education, child care, clean energy and various other items dubbed "soft" or "human" infrastructure, as well as the $550 billion, Senate-passed "physical" infrastructure bill.

"I know we will succeed because of the confidence I have in the shared values of all in our Caucus for America’s working families," Pelosi wrote. "The success of each bill contributes to the success of the other."

After that meeting, the chamber is scheduled to vote on a combined rule that would set up debate on the budget resolution, a voting rights measure and the infrastructure bill. The latter is not scheduled for final passage this week and at least nine moderate Democrats are threatening to vote against the budget if the infrastructure bill doesn't get a vote.

The nine who have said publicly they plan to oppose the budget without an infrastructure vote first are Reps. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia, Jared Golden of Maine, Ed Case of Hawaii, Jim Costa of California, Kurt Schrader of Oregon and Texans Filemon Vela, Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez.

Vela and Golden are also planning to vote against the rule and others in the group are considering it, although there’s no cohesive strategy among the nine on the rule vote.

If there’s full attendance, Democrats need 217 votes to adopt the rule and the budget. Unless there are absences or opponents who vote “present,” Democrats can’t lose more than three of their members given Republicans will be uniformly opposed to both.

[Senate approves budget resolution after ‘vote-a-rama’]

In a CNN interview Monday, Gottheimer was optimistic about the situation despite the apparent impasse. "I think we'll work this out. You know, I'm ready to sit at the table and so are my colleagues, ready to sit at the table and figure this out. And we can," he said.

Despite the prospect of not having enough votes to adopt the budget, Pelosi has not budged from her position. The California Democrat has said repeatedly the House won’t vote on the infrastructure bill until the Senate passes a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill implementing the instructions laid out in the budget. A reconciliation bill only requires a simple majority in the Senate, rather than the usual 60-vote cloture hurdle.

Pelosi's letter Monday in advance of the rule vote said passing the reconciliation bill first was necessary to preserve House Democrats' "historic leverage" to get Biden's other policies unrelated to physical infrastructure enacted. She wrote that it was imperative to address the needs of Democratic voters, "especially women, in a transformative way."

Pelosi wrote in a separate letter Saturday that House Democrats are "hard at work" to get both the bipartisan bill and the reconciliation bill done "before October 1st." House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio followed up in a Monday letter to colleagues committing to pass the Senate's infrastructure bill by Oct. 1, when current surface transportation authorizations expire.

But to do so would mean also passing the reconciliation bill, which first requires adopting the budget resolution, he said.

"Any delay on the budget resolution puts enactment of our shared priorities at risk," the Oregon Democrat wrote.

'Time kills deals'

The speaker’s goal of passing both measures in September was designed to get moderates to relent on demanding the infrastructure vote this week ahead of the budget, but it hasn't worked.

“Time kills deals. This is an old business saying and the essence of why we are pushing to get the bipartisan infrastructure bill through Congress and immediately to President Biden’s desk — as the president himself requested the day after it passed the Senate,” the group of nine moderate Democrats wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece published Sunday night.

Dozens of progressive Democrats have said they won’t vote for the infrastructure bill without the Senate passing the reconciliation package, because they’re concerned their more moderate colleagues will try to pare down the $3.5 trillion leaders and the White House agreed to or oppose the measure all together.

The moderates nodded to that in their op-ed, saying they’re in “a standoff with some of our colleagues who have decided to hold the infrastructure bill hostage for months, or kill it altogether, if they don’t get what they want in the next bill — a largely undefined $3.5 trillion reconciliation package.”

“While we have concerns about the level of spending and potential revenue raisers, we are open to immediate consideration of that package,” they wrote. “But we are firmly opposed to holding the president’s infrastructure legislation hostage to reconciliation, risking its passage and the bipartisan support behind it.”

The House Democrats have support from some of their moderate colleagues in the Senate, like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III.

“Just like Democrats and Republicans came together in the Senate to pass the historic bipartisan infrastructure package before considering the Democratic budget resolution, the House should put politics aside and do the same,” Manchin said in a statement Monday. “It would send a terrible message to the American people if this bipartisan bill is held hostage.”

Notably, Manchin shared the statement on Twitter at the same time he tweeted out a previous statement he released expressing “serious concerns” about spending $3.5 trillion in reconciliation. The ability of Manchin or other moderates in the Senate — where Democrats can’t lose a single vote — to oppose or negotiate down spending in the reconciliation package is why progressives decided months ago that it needed to be linked with the infrastructure bill Manchin and the moderates helped negotiate.

Pelosi in her letter Saturday said Biden “has been clear” the $3.5 trillion topline the Senate agreed to "is the number that will honor his vision" for an expansive fiscal agenda that fixes crumbling infrastructure while also helping lower-income workers and families afford child care, college tuition, health insurance and more.

“Accordingly, we will write a reconciliation bill with the Senate that is consistent with that topline,” she said.

Offsets up in the air

During Rules Committee debate Monday, House Budget ranking member Jason Smith, R-Mo., pointed out that despite the statutory debt limit coming back into effect Aug. 1, "the only thing that the majority party seems to be focused on is how to spend as much as they can in as little time as possible.”

The budget resolution's instructions to House and Senate committees allow a maximum of half the $3.5 trillion figure to be financed through borrowing. The House Ways and Means and Senate Finance instructions require them to fully offset their piece of the package — in fact reduce deficits by a token $1 billion over a decade. Democrats say the implementing legislation could be written in a way that offsets far more of the total price tag.

[Pelosi offers to ‘advance’ budget and infrastructure measures together]

Pelosi's Monday letter said the package would be drafted in a "fiscally-sound way, including by making the wealthiest and big corporations pay their fair share." The scope of those tax increases has caused some concern among moderates, as well as Democrats' plans to force prescription drug companies to negotiate prices with the government.

At Rules on Monday, House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said he wasn't sure yet how much would be offset. Biden's proposed "paying for all of it," he said. "We may not do that."

Whatever the ultimate figure added to deficits, it's an ongoing concern for moderates in both chambers. Case, one of the nine members opposed to voting on the budget without an infrastructure vote alongside it, filed an amendment at the Rules Committee on Monday to create a 60-vote point of order in the Senate for any reconciliation bill that would cause a net increase in deficits.

Yarmuth said House Democrats will have significant input into the final product because that's where the bill will originate. The budget blueprint provides a Sept. 15 deadline for panels to submit their recommendations to the Budget Committee, which will then staple the product together for floor action.

“We may or may not be able to pass it in the House given the partisan margin, but the House is going to have a significant say," Yarmuth said.

Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.