White House officials told House Democrats Tuesday to get ready to go it alone on infrastructure if bipartisan talks founder, setting the stage for party leaders to tap an obscure budget procedure to move President BidenJoe BidenWhite House: Window for finalizing sweeping budget package 'closing' Jayapal says tuition-free community college 'probably won't' be in spending plan Jan. 6 panel votes to hold Bannon in contempt MORE's top domestic priority without Republican support.
Huddling in person in the Capitol for the first time since the COVID-19 crisis hit, members of the House Democratic Caucus were briefed by Steve RicchettiSteve RicchettiBiden and big business: It's complicated LIVE COVERAGE: Biden tries to unify divided House Biden gets more aggressive with agenda in balance MORE, a top adviser to Biden, and Shalanda Young, the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, who said they would give Senate negotiators seven to 10 days to reach a bipartisan agreement, according to Democrats in the meeting.
If no deal is reached in that time, the officials said, Democrats will gauge the progress of those talks and charge ahead with a partisan package if need be.
“We certainly have a foundation to build on top of our jobs plan in its really complete or more complete form, and we'll see where we're going to go after a week or 10 days more dialogue and negotiation,” Ricchetti said, according to a source familiar with his remarks.
A number of Democrats emerging from the meeting, though, had a different interpretation, suggesting the seven-to-10-day window was a hard deadline.
"They're giving it a week or 10 days more and that's about it," Rep. John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthDemocrats at odds with Manchin over child tax credit provision The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Biden, Democrats dig into legislative specifics Two House Democrats to retire ahead of challenging midterms MORE (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, said afterwards. "And then we move along with reconciliation — for everything."
The White House pushed back on that narrative later in the day, emphasizing that Biden's preference remains a bipartisan deal.
“He said that we are certainly going to know where things stand on infrastructure talks generally in the next week to 10 days, and that we can then take stock overall," White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in an email. "But he did not set a deadline or cutoff.”
The differing accounts highlight the divisions within the diverse Democratic Party, as centrist lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, are pressing for a bipartisan infrastructure deal, while restive liberals want Biden to abandon those talks and pursue a massive new spending package, even if it means losing any GOP support.
"The reality is that the American people — Democrats, independents and Republicans — want us to go big," said Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalWhite House: Window for finalizing sweeping budget package 'closing' Jayapal says tuition-free community college 'probably won't' be in spending plan Progressives see budget deal getting close after Biden meeting MORE (D-Wash.), who has accused Republicans of negotiating in bad faith.
The briefing came as a group of 10 senators — five from each party — are scrambling to secure an infrastructure agreement that can pass through both chambers and win Biden's signature. The group faces fierce headwinds, however, as conservatives are already objecting to the early contours of the package, saying it's too large, while liberals are also lining up in opposition, saying it's too small.
Given the protracted impasse, Yarmuth predicted that Democrats will have to act alone to move Biden's two-part infrastructure plan, one part dealing with traditional transportation projects, the other with programs designed to help families financially. Yarmuth is readying his budget to do just that.
"We're assuming right now that everything will be done by reconciliation —everything meaning the jobs plan and the families plan," Yarmuth said. "That doesn't preclude a bipartisan agreement. If one happens, we just take that part out of the instructions. But right now we're assuming everything will be [done by reconciliation]."
Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesSinema in Arizona as Democrats try to get spending-infrastructure deal LIVE COVERAGE: Biden tries to unify divided House Democrats search for sweet spot below .5 trillion price tag MORE (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said the White House officials instructed Democrats to prepare for two separate tracks: one allowing for a bipartisan agreement, the other empowering Democrats to act alone.
"If they choose the obstruction pathway, then we're prepared to do what is necessary to get the American Jobs Plan over the finish line," Jeffries warned.
Jayapal, head of the powerful Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she's skeptical of the Senate negotiations, for three reasons.
First, she doesn't see 10 Republicans breaking ranks to support a top Biden priority. Second, the contours of the Senate proposal, so far, reveal a package far too small to win the support of liberals in either chamber. And third, the gas tax some senators have proposed to help cover the new costs is regressive, in the eyes of liberals, who would oppose the package as a result.
"What we have said consistently is that it would be very difficult for us to vote on a smaller bipartisan package that leaves out so many of our critical priorities," Jayapal said. "And unless we absolutely have the other package — reconciliation packages — moving at the same time and we have 50 votes in the Senate for it," then liberals will oppose it.
"That is the challenge for us," Jayapal said. "We're not going to vote on something smaller unless there's something that has everything in it at the same time."
Yarmuth, for his part, said he's aiming to have his budget passed through the House before the long August recess. Asked if it will have the votes to pass, he said he's "confident" — with an asterisk.
"I'm not overly confident, but I'm confident," he said. "Everybody's committed to getting this done."
Updated at 2:56 p.m.