Centrist Democrats balk at quick House vote on budget bill

Blue Dog Coalition members want budget estimates, 72 hours to review before vote

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., is part of moderate group that's pushing for time to review the reconciliation package. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., is part of moderate group that's pushing for time to review the reconciliation package. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 2, 2021 at 6:41pm

House Democratic leaders may not have the votes to pass their budget reconciliation package this week, after five moderates said they won’t support it until they have time to review the final text and corresponding cost estimates that aren't yet available. 

Top Democrats said on Tuesday they hoped to finish negotiations on the bill and release final text later in the day. They made progress toward that goal by announcing a deal on a prescription drug pricing proposal that was left out of a framework the White House released last week. But it was unclear when the text would be ready.

Democratic leaders can't afford to lose more than three votes in the narrowly divided House, assuming they get no GOP support for the reconciliation bill.

In a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, five moderate members of the Blue Dog Coalition — co-chairs Ed Case of Hawaii and Stephanie Murphy of Florida and Reps. Jared Golden of Maine, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Kurt Schrader of Oregon — asked that lawmakers have at least 72 hours to review text before a vote, as House rules require. 

The House Rules Committee can include a waiver of the 72-hour requirement in the rule setting floor debate parameters for a bill when leaders want to move quickly. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., suggested that wouldn't be necessary for the reconciliation package since "most of the bill was posted by the Rules Committee last week."

But to adhere to the 72-hour rule in spirit with a vote before the House is scheduled to wrap up for the week on Friday would require the final text to be posted sometime Tuesday. House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., said he doubted the text would be ready Tuesday, while Hoyer couldn't predict whether it would be ready Tuesday night or Wednesday.

"As soon as possible," Hoyer said.

Even if the text is finalized quickly, it’s unlikely the Congressional Budget Office could score provisions in time to produce an estimate for a Friday vote. The Joint Committee on Taxation may have its estimates of the revenue provisions out in time, but that wouldn't present the full picture since some cost savings, like on prescription drugs, come from the spending side.

“The [CBO] score is gonna take probably at least 10 days to two weeks,” House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., told reporters Tuesday. 

The five moderates were even more firm in saying they need the CBO and JCT estimates “to ensure the final bill is indeed fiscally responsible.” The group wrote that they can't support the package "until we have had a chance to review these scores, which provide the true cost of the legislation."

The moderates also argued there should not be a rush to pass the measure through the House since the Senate’s reconciliation rules prevent that chamber from considering the package before an official CBO score is available. 

Yarmuth questioned why members need to see the score to understand what the bill costs. 

“All you have to do is go through the sections and add the numbers up,” he said, noting there are various line items for appropriations. “That doesn't need a score. It’s there in black and white. So it's pretty easy to figure out.”

Yarmuth did acknowledge that a JCT score is needed to determine how much revenue the bill will raise. But that is expected to come more quickly than the CBO score. 

Hoyer said he expects to have "a large part" of the package scored this week, even if the late-negotiated pieces are not. The CBO can provide lawmakers unofficial scores on pieces of the bill, but it doesn't put out the official score until it's estimated every provision and how they interact.

Senate uncertainty

The five members on the letter are half of the original group of 10 moderates that secured a commitment from Pelosi in August that she would not attempt to pass a reconciliation package through the House that could not also pass the Senate. 

Key Senate centrists Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have yet to commit to supporting the developing legislation. Manchin on Monday said he is concerned the $1.75 trillion in proposed spending is full of “shell games and budget gimmicks” because it includes temporary programs that most Democrats want to extend or make permanent later.

The final text will also still need to be scrubbed in the Senate for compliance with its reconciliation rules, a process Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday could take a week.

Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough has weighed in on some pieces of the package, but she has yet to approve any of Democrats' proposed immigration language providing new paths to legal status for swaths of undocumented immigrants as in compliance with the chamber's "Byrd rule." That rule requires provisions to have more than a merely incident budgetary impact. 

The immigration language is one of the unfinished pieces of the text. House progressives want to vote on the strongest immigration language possible that has not yet been shot down by the parliamentarian, but the moderates are concerned about taking a potentially tough vote on language MacDonough has yet to approve. 

“We continue to urge you to only bring a bill to the floor for which we have a strong level of confidence that the provisions in the bill will be ruled in order by the Senate Parliamentarian and earn passage in the U.S. Senate,” the five moderates wrote.

Earlier Murphy told reporters that she wants to ensure whatever immigration language makes it into the bill will be what can become law.

“Anything short of what can clear the parliamentarian in the Senate process is promising false hope to immigrants and it's cruel and unusual,” she said.

[Democrats closer to deal on budget reconciliation package]

Hoyer acknowledged that the moderates’ concerns could slow things down but said leadership is trying to uphold its prior commitments. 

“What we told them and what we continue to tell them is that we want to pass a bill that can pass the Senate,” he said.

Infrastructure implications 

In slowing down consideration of the reconciliation package, moderates may also be delaying a long-awaited vote on a Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill that would provide $550 billion in new spending and a five-year reauthorization of existing programs. 

The original group of 10 moderates that struck an August deal with Pelosi on both bills already lost out on their promised late September vote. A separate effort to advance the infrastructure bill last week also ran into progressive opposition. Congress has passed two short-term extensions of surface transportation programs because of the delay, with the most recent one lasting through Dec. 3.

Now progressives say they’re ready to vote on both bills this week if they move together, but moderates are the ones slowing things down. The five moderates said in their letter they still want a floor vote on the infrastructure bill “as soon as possible,” even as they need more time to analyze the reconciliation package.

  “While we understand the needs of the nation are great, we believe our job as legislators is to provide the due diligence required to properly serve our constituents,” they wrote. “It is better to get this done right than to needlessly rush its consideration only for our constituents to discover the negative impacts of our unintended consequences.” 

Caroline Simon, Laura Weiss, Lauren Clason, Jennifer Shutt and David Lerman contributed to this report.