House Democrats look for a sign from the Senate on budget bill

Speaker says the House can no longer wait until the Senate passes the reconciliation package to vote on the infrastructure bill

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the House can no longer wait until the Senate passes the reconciliation package to vote on the infrastructure bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the House can no longer wait until the Senate passes the reconciliation package to vote on the infrastructure bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 27, 2021 at 1:19pm, Updated at 11:08pm

House Democrats emerged from a caucus meeting Monday night without a clear strategy for passing both pieces of their party’s economic agenda, but progressives and moderates agreed they need more input from the Senate.

In particular, House Democrats want centrist Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., to communicate the topline amount they can support for Democrats’ budget reconciliation package so negotiations on the substance of the legislation can proceed.

Progressive Democrats demanded, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., initially agreed, that both chambers would pass that package before the House took up a Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill that provides for $550 billion in new spending. But Pelosi acknowledged for the first time Monday that's no longer feasible.

Senate Budget Committee Democrats and the White House agreed to a $3.5 trillion topline for the reconciliation package earlier this summer, which most in the party have backed. That number is what Democratic leaders think is needed to include all of their party priorities: government assistance for child care, paid leave, free community college and programs to combat climate change, expand health insurance access and more. Democrats plan to pay for all that with tax increases on wealthy individuals and corporations.

But Sinema, Manchin and some House moderates have said $3.5 trillion is more than they can support, citing concerns about inflation and some of the tax increase proposals.

“We’ve all been eager to have a direct conversation about what policies they want to debate,” Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., the Congressional Progressive Caucus whip, said. “Hopefully they will let us know and we can, you know, have a place to start.”

“Once there's an agreed upon number, then we can prioritize and then we can make it work,” Rep. Jim Costa, one of the House moderates, said. The California Democrat said he has a topline he can accept in mind but declined to say what it was, noting it’s “probably” higher than what Senate moderates will agree to, “which is the most important number.”

Leadership confident

Pelosi called the special caucus meeting to unify her party’s warring factions ahead of a Thursday vote on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill that Sinema and Manchin helped write. She promised moderate Democrats the House would pass that measure this week after previously committing to progressives that the House would pass reconciliation first.

Pelosi told Democrats during the caucus meeting that the House was “on schedule” to pass the reconciliation package before the infrastructure bill “until 10 days ago, a week ago, when I heard the news that this [topline] number had to come down.”

“It all changed, so our approach had to change,” she said, according to a source familiar with her remarks.

Pelosi said the House can no longer wait until the Senate passes the reconciliation package to pass the infrastructure bill. But she said President Joe Biden is working on getting a new agreement on a topline number that Sinema and Manchin can support.

“House and Senate Democrats – we are completely in sync: We are going to have the same bill,” she told her caucus. “We are not going to pass a bill that cannot pass – that won’t pass the Senate. And that's why we have to come up with a number. But we're not there yet.”

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer left the meeting confident Democrats could soon unify around a reconciliation package. He stopped short of promising the House would vote on it this week, but acknowledged, “We have no time left on the clock.”

Biden told reporters earlier Monday that he’s a “born optimist” but that Democrats may not be able to complete everything on their to-do list by the end of the week. In addition to the infrastructure and reconciliation bills that make up the bulk of his domestic agenda, Congress also has to fund the government by Thursday and pass legislation suspending or raising the debt ceiling within the next few weeks.

“It may not be by the end of the week. I hope it's by the end of the week,” Biden said.

Complicating passage of most of those measures is Democrats’ narrow congressional majorities. Democrats are seeking GOP cooperation on some matters, but on the partisan reconciliation package they can’t lose a single vote in the Senate or more than three in the House.

The infrastructure bill passed the Senate last month with 19 of the chamber’s 50 Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., supporting it. But House Republican leaders are whipping against the measure because of its connection to the reconciliation package.

There are roughly 12 to 15 House Republicans who say they will vote for the infrastructure bill regardless of when the House takes up the reconciliation package, according to a source familiar with the GOP supporters' vote counting operation. If the infrastructure bill were to be delinked from Democrats advancing the reconciliation package, that support would grow, the source said.

But that level of Republican support is not likely enough to offset progressive Democrats who plan to oppose the infrastructure bill without passage of the reconciliation package. More than a dozen progressives publicly reiterated their commitment to that stance on Monday.

‘A deal is a deal’

Despite leadership’s confidence about getting their members in line before Thursday’s vote, their path to doing so is unclear.

Several progressive Democrats left the caucus meeting saying they still want the reconciliation package passed before they are willing to vote for the infrastructure bill.

“A deal is a deal,” Omar said, reiterating progressives’ view that both pieces of Biden’s domestic agenda need to advance together.

Hoyer said he hoped the Senate moderates would provide their topline so a potential framework agreement on reconciliation could be reached among all party factions this week that would make progressives comfortable voting for the infrastructure bill.

“I hope that’s the case,” he said.

Some progressives indicated they are open to a compromise of that sort.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said he was still undecided about how he’ll vote on the infrastructure bill, noting he wants assurances on what the Senate will agree to on reconciliation.

“Any type of smoke signal from the Senate would be preferable to the black screen that we’re getting right now,” he said.

Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., said there’s not just one way to prove to progressives both bills will pass. “It’s got to be real. It’s got to be substantial,” he said.

But Rep. Steve Cohen, a progressive who plans to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill regardless of whether there’s been movement on reconciliation, cautioned against waiting on the Senate rather than guaranteeing a win for Democrats.

“I’ve been a legislator for 44 years — longer than many of them were alive and on the earth,” the Tennessee Democrat said of his fellow progressives. “And I know politics. You’ve got a Senate, there’s certain realities, and we’ve got to pass both bills. But if we can pass the infrastructure bill, we need to do it.”

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said most of her members want a vote on reconciliation before infrastructure to ensure both pass. But she suggested a detailed agreement with moderates on the parameters of the reconciliation package could suffice if there’s a clear path to ensuring it ultimately passes.

“Some of it depends on what that conversation is like . . . what is the commitment other than a vote that it’s not going to be held up?” the Washington Democrat said. “I don’t know what that would be, that’s why I keep saying a vote because nobody has told me anything that comes close to that.”

Jayapal said she spoke with Sinema but declined to share details of their conversation.

House moderates who secured the deal with Pelosi to have the infrastructure vote this week have also been in touch with Sinema and Manchin in an effort to advance the reconciliation negotiations along.

Rep. Henry Cuellar said the senators have told him what their topline number is, but he declined to announce it for them. The reconciliation package is “not going to be ready by Thursday,” the Texas Democrat said, but he thinks Pelosi can convince progressives who want to see that measure passed that there’s “enough movement to show that it's moving that direction.”

“Some of the progressives need to trust Nancy Pelosi,” Cuellar said. “And she can get it done.”

Laura Weiss contributed to this report.