Democrats will try to ‘deem’ $3.5T budget blueprint

Maneuver would allow centrist holdouts to sidestep direct vote on budget instructions for reconciliation bill

Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks with reporters in the Capitol before a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus on Monday.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks with reporters in the Capitol before a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus on Monday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 23, 2021 at 7:52pm, Updated at 9:56pm

Speaker Nancy Pelosi floated a compromise to moderate holdouts Monday that would advance the budget resolution needed to unlock a $3.5 trillion package of aid to families, students and clean energy subsidies in exchange for a guaranteed vote on a separate, $550 billion infrastructure package.

The plan would “deem” the fiscal 2022 budget resolution adopted when the chamber adopts the combined rule for floor debate on the Senate-passed infrastructure bill and voting rights legislation. Pelosi, D-Calif., also committed to a floor vote on the infrastructure bill before Oct. 1, when current surface transportation program authorizations lapse.

The centrists who’ve balked at voting for the budget before the bipartisan infrastructure bill did not appear to accept the offer. Leadership was negotiating with the group, led by Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., late Monday night.

"We're still working, feeling very optimistic, though still working,'' Gottheimer told reporters during a brief break in the discussions shortly after 9 p.m. He declined to answer questions.

Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer also declined to say much beyond that the talks were continuing.

"We're legislating, so we'll let you know when we finish legislating,'' Pelosi said.

“We’ve had a discussion. They have concerns. We’re trying to meet those concerns,” Hoyer added.

As talks continued beyond 9:30 p.m., the House remained in recess subject to the call of the chair, as the leaders hoped for a breakthrough that would allow a vote on the rule that would deem the budget adopted.

"When we bring the [rule] to the floor we will," Pelosi said when asked whether she had secured the necessary votes.

The House Rules Committee began debating a rule earlier in the day that would have set up debate on all three measures — the budget, Senate infrastructure bill and voting rights — but later recessed subject to the call of the chair. The panel reconvened and adopted the revised rule, which would simply deem the budget as adopted rather than set up a separate vote on it, later on Monday.

Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., earlier said he didn't know if the strategy would succeed.

"I haven't talked to anybody, I'm just doing what I think is appropriate," McGovern said before the second Rules session of the day.

Leaving a closed-door Democratic Caucus meeting Monday night, the party's top vote-counter said he expected a vote later in the evening on the combined rule. But he wouldn't say whether the votes were there to adopt it.

"I have no idea," House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., told reporters.

Making the situation more difficult for Democratic leaders ahead of the voting, the group of nine moderate holdouts appeared to grow by one. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., penned an opinion piece Monday in the Orlando Sentinel appearing to take a similar position.

"I cannot in good conscience vote to start the reconciliation process unless we also finish our work on the infrastructure bill," Murphy wrote.

One aspect of the rule that may make voting for it easier for moderates is that party leaders switched off a provision of House rules that automatically sends a debt limit suspension measure to the Senate upon adoption of a budget resolution.

How to deal with the debt limit, which snapped back into place on Aug. 1 and which needs to be raised or suspended again as soon as next month, has been a vexing issue for Democratic leaders. They've said they plan to rely on bipartisan support to get a debt limit measure through the Senate, in order to inoculate Democratic moderates against political attacks.

Jockeying for position

Progressives have argued for months that they need to delay a vote on the Senate’s infrastructure bill until it was clear that chamber could also pass the broader fiscal package, which contains other elements of President Joe Biden’s agenda.

The $3.5 trillion envisioned in the budget would include subsidies for paid family leave, child care, home health services, health insurance, free prekindergarten and community college tuition, a pathway to legal status to undocumented immigrants and more. A package of renewable energy tax breaks and incentive payments to companies to help hit Biden’s carbon reduction targets would also be included.

Although that measure would move under reconciliation protections, which allow bills to pass with a simple majority in the Senate, it’s not clear all 50 Democrats in that chamber would be on board.

West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema have each expressed concern with the $3.5 trillion price tag. Hence the progressives’ position that party leaders need to hold back the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, which Sinema and Manchin helped write, as leverage to get the larger, not-yet-written package enacted.

Other centrists weren’t tying their votes on the budget to the infrastructure bill, but still apparently needed some shoring up from leadership.

Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips told reporters he won assurances that more money for cash-strapped restaurants — a $28.6 billion relief fund in the March pandemic aid law (PL 117-2) has already run dry — as well as more money for live entertainment venues and a new fund for health and fitness centers would be considered. He declined to say whether that funding, which has bipartisan support, would be included in reconciliation or move separately.

Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a top GOP target in a district former President Donald Trump won twice, said she's supporting the budget resolution "to start the process." But she emphasized lawmakers' ultimate leverage is on the yet-to-be-written reconciliation bill itself.

"I'm not going to vote for a reconciliation bill until I read it and see it and understand it," Slotkin said Monday night. "And if it's not targeted and transformational I'm not voting for it."

House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, whose panel will be responsible for drafting a large portion of the reconciliation package, told reporters after the caucus meeting that the vote Monday night was simply procedural and wouldn't lock members into supporting any particular plan.

The Massachusetts Democrat said he argued to rank-and-file Democrats during the meeting that the "rule is about being in the majority," and the actual reconciliation details could be litigated later.

"There's a long way to go on legislative issues that are going to play out over the next month, but for the moment the argument here is about, 'Shall the House proceed,'" Neal said. He said he planned to pay for all or most of the $3.5 trillion package, which he said should be ready on or before the Sept. 15 deadline outlined in the budget resolution.

Paul M. Krawzak, Niels Lesniewski, Jessica Wehrman and Laura Weiss contributed to this report.