Pelosi enters pivotal stretch on Biden agenda
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) faces daunting days ahead as she races to unite feuding factions of her restive caucus and pass a massive social benefits package at the heart of President Biden’s agenda, along with a separate infrastructure bill, before November.
It all makes for a heavy lift, one steeped in urgency and carrying potentially momentous consequences for both a party facing tough odds of keeping the House in next year’s midterms and a president who’s sinking in the polls and desperately needs a big legislative win.
To pull it off, Pelosi is attempting to thread a delicate needle, weighing the demands of energized liberals — who view Biden’s occupancy in the Oval Office as a rare opportunity for Democrats to realize their most ambitious policy designs — against those of cautious moderates, who are sounding alarms about deficit spending, government overreach and the harm the debate might do to their 2022 reelection prospects.
Given the high stakes, Democrats are increasingly framing the legislation as a do-or-die moment for the party’s political success moving forward.
“Failure is not an option,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee. “And I think everybody — liberals and conservatives in the Democratic Party alike — understand that.”
With razor-thin margins in both chambers and Republicans unanimously opposed to the spending package, Democratic leaders can afford virtually no defections. Pelosi this week acknowledged the challenges they face as they trim the cost of the $3.5 trillion social benefits package — a figure initially championed by Biden — in ways that can satisfy centrist deficit hawks without alienating progressives.
“I’m very disappointed that we’re not going with the original $3.5 trillion, which was very transformative,” Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol, forecasting “some difficult decisions because we have fewer resources.”
The exact size of the final legislation remains unknown, since the talks remain ongoing and a pair of centrist senators — Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — have yet to name their ceiling. Addressing House Democrats earlier this month, Biden suggested that negotiators shoot for a number in the range of $2 trillion.
Democratic leaders have several strategic options as they strive to cut costs. They can eliminate some of the benefit provisions in the initial package; keep those programs but condense the duration over which they’re funded; or some combination of the two.
In a letter to Democrats Monday evening, Pelosi suggested that some programs would be cut altogether. She promoted the idea of putting the focus more squarely on child benefits and efforts to tackle climate change.
“Overwhelmingly, the guidance I am receiving from Members is to do fewer things well,” she wrote.
Yet that prescription drew howls from some progressives, who have urged Biden and Pelosi to adopt the most ambitious package possible — and want it to include all the major benefits of the initial $3.5 trillion proposal, even if the timelines need some pruning.
“We have been clear to the White House [and] to the Speaker as well that what the Progressive Caucus would like to have is not some false choice of just doing a couple of things … but actually reducing the number of years slightly if we need to,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Tuesday on a press call.
Jayapal echoed another liberal demand, championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), that the social spending package also include an expansion of Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing benefits.
Pelosi on Tuesday appeared to acknowledge the liberal pushback, saying the first cost-cutting strategy would be to scale back the duration of benefits, rather than slashing them altogether.
“The fact is that if there are fewer dollars to spend, there are choices to be made. … And some members have written back to me and said, ‘I want to do everything.’ So we’ll have that discussion,” Pelosi said. “The timing would be reduced in many cases to make the cost lower.”
Pelosi ticked off a number of proposed benefit programs that will be prioritized as Democrats make those tough choices, including a child tax benefit, expanded child care and prekindergarten programs and new spending for home health care.
“I mean, we’re still talking about a couple trillion dollars,” she said.
Pelosi had previously set an Oct. 31 deadline for passing Biden’s agenda, which also includes a bipartisan infrastructure bill that the Senate passed in August. In Monday’s letter, the Speaker said that, in order to meet that timeline, “it is essential that difficult decisions must be made very soon.”
Adding to the urgency has been the Nov. 2 election for governor in Virginia, where Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe, the hands-on favorite heading into the campaign, is facing a much tougher race than many expected. A big legislative victory for Democrats in Congress could boost their chances in that race, many lawmakers contend.
On Tuesday, Pelosi said she’s “optimistic” that Democrats are on track to meet the month-end deadline, which coincides with the expiration of the federal authority for highway funding. And she amplified a previous vow that she won’t bring any bill to the House floor that can’t make it through the Senate — a concern of Democratic centrists wary of walking the plank in support of liberal wish lists that have no chance of becoming law.
“I’m not asking members to vote for something that has no chance to pass in the Senate,” she said.
McGovern, for his part, conceded that the process has been messy and the internal divisions stark. But in the end, he predicted, Democrats will achieve victory on the reforms they’ve sought, in some cases, for decades.
“There’s a thousand ways to figure this out,” he said. “I mean, this is a big deal. I would like to go bigger and bolder; others want to go smaller. But we’ll end up in a place that will still be transformational for this country.”
Jordain Carney and Scott Wong contributed.