Progressives' optimism for large reforms dwindles
Moderates revolt on infrastructure in new challenge for Pelosi
The Democrats' strategy for enacting President Biden's agenda hit a major snag Friday when nine House moderates bucked party leaders with threats of tanking a $3.5 trillion budget bill unless they can vote first on the Senate's $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal.
The ultimatum flips leadership's preferred sequence on its head, and it presents a blunt challenge to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has laid out carefully choreographed plans to withhold a House vote on the bipartisan bill until the Senate passes a second, larger package of health, climate and safety net benefits later this year.
The notion of linking the two bills reflects the demand of House progressives, who simply don't trust their moderate colleagues - particularly those in the Senate - to support the "family" benefits package if the more popular funding for physical infrastructure has already become law.
The budget resolution, which lays the groundwork for the larger reconciliation package, has already passed the Senate and is scheduled for a House vote the week of Aug. 23.
Yet the competing demands from the party's furthermost ideological wings has created an impasse, at least temporarily, and if Biden's year-one economic agenda is to be enacted, one side will have to give in. That means either some progressives will have to change their tune and support infrastructure without Senate passage of the $3.5 trillion social benefits package, or some moderates will have to drop their threat and support the budget resolution without an infrastructure vote beforehand.
Neither side appeared ready to budge on Friday.
"With the livelihoods of hardworking American families at stake, we simply can't afford months of unnecessary delays and risk squandering this once-in-a-century, bipartisan infrastructure package," the nine moderates, led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), wrote to Pelosi. "It's time to get shovels in the ground and people to work."
Liberals wasted little time firing back.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), citing Biden's pledge to fortify the post-pandemic economy for all Americans, argued Democrats have "a moral imperative" to deliver on that promise.
"Anyone who votes to slow down or stop progress on this popular and necessary Build Back Better reconciliation package is voting against the President's and the Democrats' agenda," Jayapal, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in a statement.
In sharper words, Jayapal blasted out a campaign fundraising email warning that the moderates were threatening to sink Biden's plans to expand paid leave, housing subsidies, Medicare and efforts to address climate change.
"Blocking this from passing means blocking these priorities - and we can't allow it," the email reads.
Pelosi, for her part, has remained silent on the topic. And White House officials, who did not hold a press briefing Friday, did not respond to a request for comment.
A senior Democratic aide downplayed the threat the moderates may pose to Biden's agenda, noting that the centrist objectors represent a tiny fraction of a Democratic Caucus that otherwise largely supports the two-track voting schedule laid out by the Speaker.
"There are not sufficient votes to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill this month," the aide said in an email, referencing the liberals' opposition. "This is 9. There are dozens upon dozens who will vote against the [bipartisan infrastructure bill] unless it's after the Senate passes reconciliation."
That message has not appeased some of the moderates, however, who see clear advantages to the quick adoption of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Not only would that tactic allow Biden and Democrats to space out their victories over the course of several months, they argue, but it would also prevent the larger - and more controversial - reconciliation bill from overshadowing the bipartisan agreement on infrastructure.
"It's going to muddle the message entirely," a senior Democratic aide associated with the party's moderate wing said Friday. "If this gets caught in the cross-currents of reconciliation, people will forget that it ever happened, and no one will get credit for it."
The aide also cautioned that marrying the two bills is no guarantee that moderates will support the larger reconciliation bill, the details of which remain to be seen.
"Liberals seem to think that linking the two bills will automatically get these moderate members to a yes on reconciliation," the aide said. "I think that's a misunderstanding of the dynamics in the moderate wing of the party.
"They view these things as very separate."
Aside from Gottheimer, the other moderates endorsing Friday's infrastructure ultimatum were Reps. Henry Cuellar (Texas), Jim Costa (Calif.), Kurt Schrader (Ore.), Filemon Vela (Texas), Vicente Gonzalez (Texas), Jared Golden (Maine), Ed Case (Hawaii) and Carolyn Bourdeaux (Ga.).
Just as significant as the nine names on the letter were the names of prominent moderates notably absent. Three out of the four co-chairs of the Blue Dogs - Reps. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Tom O'Halleran (D-Ariz.) - did not sign on, while Case did.
Other moderate Democrats who did not join the effort included Reps. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), Elaine Luria (D-Va.), Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) and two of Gottheimer's New Jersey colleagues: Reps. Andy Kim and Tom Malinowski.
Malinowski went so far as to warn that the tactics by the nine moderates could derail Biden's entire fragile 2021 agenda.
"The important thing to me is to get both bills passed and to the president," Malinowski told The Washington Post. "I fear that forcing a vote now [on infrastructure] would undermine, not advance, that goal."
But the majority of moderates are staying out of the fray for now, waiting to see how Pelosi responds and the intraparty drama plays out.
"While I remain quite concerned about the size of the reconciliation package, much of the physical and human infrastructure proposals are of such transformational importance to America that I remain committed to finding a path to success for both," Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus who did not sign the letter, told The Hill on Friday.
"I'll be keeping my powder dry as I work with members on both sides of the aisle."