Congress shows signs of movement on stalled Biden agenda

After weeks of impasse, there were signs on Monday night that the dam was beginning to break on President Biden’s multitrillion-dollar domestic agenda. 

Democrats don’t have much time to spare after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) set a Thursday vote on a bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, which some liberals are vowing to oppose without more movement on Biden’s $3.5 trillion social spending and climate package. 

But on Monday, three days ahead of that key roll call, the legislative gears were beginning to turn.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) spoke by phone and texted several key moderates, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). Biden held a conference call with the two top Democrats on Capitol Hill, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) 

And some liberals, who have been the driving force demanding a robust package expanding safety net programs and tackling climate change, began floating numbers much lower than the $3.5 trillion initially sought by Pelosi and House Democrats. 

“I’ve heard [$2.5 trillion] could conceivably do it. But we’ve got to know what’s behind these numbers. That’s just far more important than just throwing numbers around like they have inherent meaning,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who has been among the liberal lawmakers demanding a robust social spending bill. 

“Some of my colleagues have just thrown that out, that they think that we might be able to get the core of what we need at [$2.5 trillion],” Huffman said.

There was also notable movement Monday on the initial liberal demand by lawmakers that the larger social spending bill must pass through the Senate before House progressives will support the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Thursday. Democratic leaders have been scrambling to secure a commitment from centrist Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sinema that they’ll support some version of the social spending bill. Some progressives such as Huffman said such a gesture would be enough to win their vote on infrastructure. 

“You could either have a Senate-approved bill, or you could have a public, very specific commitment from Manchin and Sinema,” Huffman said. “Either of those two things I think would be enough. But I’m very skeptical that we could get either of them by Thursday.”

Yet other progressives such as Jayapal are sticking to their original demand, threatening to vote down the infrastructure bill later this week unless the Senate first passes the social benefits package, which party leaders intend to move through a special budget process, known as reconciliation, that sidesteps a GOP filibuster. 

“What we have said is we need the entire reconciliation bill,” Jayapal said. “Some framework that can still take another several months to get done, that the Senate hasn’t agreed to, that hasn’t been voted on, is not going to do it for us.”

On Monday night, the House kicked off debate on the Senate-passed bill to fund roads, bridges, waterways and internet access. Floor debate is expected to resume on Tuesday, with the vote on passage not until at least Thursday, when some surface transportation programs are set to expire.

In a special meeting of House Democrats earlier Monday, Pelosi rallied her rank-and-file members behind the infrastructure and Democrats-only reconciliation packages. 

“Unity!” replied Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), when asked about Pelosi’s message to the caucus. “Unity and purpose.”

However, the details of her message were more nuanced.

Pelosi conceded that the final reconciliation package would not be ready by Thursday’s vote on the bipartisan infrastructure framework (BIF), despite previous promises to progressives that the two bills would move in tandem. Pelosi said that the Senate’s demand that the $3.5 trillion figure “had to come down” scrambled the timing. 

“It all changed, so our approach had to change,” Pelosi told her members, according to a source in the room. 

“We had to accommodate the changes that were being necessitated,” she added. “And we cannot be ready to say, ‘Until the Senate passed the [reconciliation] bill, we can’t do BIF.’” 

Meanwhile, some of the centrist Democrats who have been pushing for a vote as soon as possible on the bipartisan infrastructure bill showed willingness to work with their progressive counterparts. 

Those centrists, who originally secured a commitment from Pelosi last month to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill by Monday, appeared sanguine about the three-day delay to Thursday as the talks over the social spending package continue.

“It’s a real challenge to have all of those details, but we’re all committed to trying to work as hard as we can to get there,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, said of making progress on the social spending package. 

“But it’s critically important that we pass the infrastructure bill because I think it will provide us the momentum that we need to get the reconciliation bill across the finish line,” she added.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), the Problem Solvers Caucus co-chairman and leader of a group of centrists who secured the original agreement on the bipartisan bill with Pelosi last month, expressed confidence the vote wouldn’t be punted past Thursday.

“I have no concerns about a delay,” Gottheimer said.

Despite the signs of movement, progressives’ impatience with centrists was on full display as much of the social spending package remains in question.

“It is saddening to see them use Republican talking points. We obviously didn’t envision having Republicans as part of our party,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the Congressional Progressive Caucus whip, said of Manchin and Sinema. “And I hope that they will understand that Democrats need to be united behind the president’s agenda, and we need to have urgent conversations on how to get this agenda done.”

It wasn’t the only internal sniping to surface on Monday. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a staunch liberal, urged his fellow progressives to support the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Thursday.

“That would be the wise thing for the progressives to do,” he said. 

Making progress on Biden’s infrastructure and social spending agenda by Thursday isn’t the only cliff lawmakers are approaching this week. Lawmakers must also pass a spending bill by Thursday night to avoid a government shutdown as well as act to prevent a debt default in the next few weeks.

But there was some acknowledgement that the self-imposed Thursday deadline may be helping lawmakers kickstart negotiations that otherwise might have dragged on even longer.

“I think without particular deadlines, it’s hard for us to urgently move the conversation along. If things are indefinite, then people don’t work with urgency,” Omar said.

Updated 10:28 p.m.

Tags Chuck Schumer Ilhan Omar Jamie Raskin Jared Huffman Joe Biden Joe Manchin Josh Gottheimer Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal Stephanie Murphy Steve Cohen

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