House returns to take up budget and voting rights, with Democrats divided

Centrists want infrastructure vote too, oppose Pelosi strategy

Texas Rep. Filemon Vela has said he would oppose a House rule vote this week combining a budget resolution with voting and infrastructure bills. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Texas Rep. Filemon Vela has said he would oppose a House rule vote this week combining a budget resolution with voting and infrastructure bills. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 23, 2021 at 7:00am

The House returns this week with Democratic leaders hoping to adopt a budget resolution and pass a voting rights bill, but a bill that won’t be put up for a vote right away is creating drama about what, if anything, will get done.

The nine House Democrats who told Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a letter Aug. 13 that they won’t vote for the budget unless the House sends the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill to President Joe Biden’s desk first were holding firm last week, the members or their offices told CQ Roll Call.

The moderate lawmakers weren’t persuaded by Pelosi’s offer to use a single rule to send the budget resolution, infrastructure bill and a voting rights measure named to honor the late Rep. John Lewis to the floor. At least two of the nine, Reps. Filemon Vela of Texas and Jared Golden of Maine, say they’re planning to vote against the rule.

It is also unclear whether those nine Democrats are the only party members who could withhold support for the budget. Passing the resolution, which the Senate adopted early in the morning of Aug. 11, would enable the Senate to use reconciliation rules to bypass the 60-vote threshold on a still-unwritten $3.5 trillion package of Biden priorities. Pelosi supports that broader bill, and has said she would not take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which would provide an extra $550 billion for roads, transit and broadband programs, until the Senate passes the reconciliation measure.

Opponents of that strategy say Democrats should take a bipartisan victory that’s available and pass the infrastructure bill, but taking that step could lead more liberal members in the caucus, concerned the Senate would never pass the bigger package, to withhold support. 

Democrats can lose no more than three members on party-line votes with full attendance, but the math is more complicated, because members who miss votes or vote “present” change the total number of “yes” votes needed for passage.

Voting bill named for Lewis

Another Democratic priority for the week is a voting rights bill named for Lewis, a leader of the Civil Rights movement who died last year, that was unveiled last week. The bill seeks to restore and strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act in response to Supreme Court rulings and voting law changes passed by Republican-controlled states. Some supporters also see it as a tool needed to influence or counter redistricting maps states have begun to develop by making it more difficult to weaken the voting power of minority communities.

The bill, dubbed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would restore the Justice Department’s ability to preclear election law changes in some states, using a new formula to determine the states affected. A 2013 Supreme Court decision tossed the formula the DOJ used since the original law’s enactment in 1965, and House supporters of the measure held a series of hearings to build a record in anticipation of lawsuits challenging any new law enacted. 

Other provisions create a new test for violations after the fact, in response to a Supreme Court decision earlier this year that raised the threshold for finding a voting change violated the law.

Republicans have almost unanimously opposed efforts to pass a new Voting Rights Act in recent years, and in the last few months some have accused Democrats of attempting a “federal takeover” of elections.

If the House does pass the voting bill, it would still be subject to a filibuster in the Senate.