Patience wears thin as Democrats miss deadlines

Democrats are at risk of missing yet another self-imposed deadline to strike a long-sought deal on their sweeping social spending package.

Party leaders insisted a month ago that they were close to a deal and that a House vote on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill was imminent — only to end up with neither.  

Now Democrats want to get it all done before President Biden leaves Washington on Thursday for an international climate summit and to boost gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey in elections next Tuesday.

They also want to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill in a matter of days since it would renew federal highway programs that are set to expire on Oct. 31, rather than turn to another short-term extension.

House and Senate Democrats have made significant headway in the last few weeks, but it’s far from clear a framework will be reached by Thursday, and lawmakers across the party were grumbling.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a former Virginia governor, expressed frustration that the party still didn’t have a deal that Democrat Terry McAuliffe could campaign on in the neck-and-neck Virginia gubernatorial race.

“I asked Biden last night, ‘By close you mean by the end of the day tomorrow’? … He said probably not,” Kaine said, recounting a conversation he had with Biden on Tuesday.  

“This should have been done by now,” Kaine said. “This has been very frustrating to me, because I think we could have made a decision a while ago and if we had, it would have been good in Virginia, it would have been good for Biden.”

Kaine acknowledged that Democrats can’t afford to lose a vote and expressed hope a deal could be reached by the time Biden leaves for Rome on Thursday.

“Yeah, that’s my hope,” he said.

Democratic leaders have defended setting public deadlines as a way to pressure negotiators.

“Well, my experience has been, if we don’t say this is going to happen, it doesn’t happen,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “It focuses people on decisionmaking. And that’s the Speaker’s point, and she’s right.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, added, “I’m looking for any available deadline that will move us to an agreement.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday that an agreement was still possible before Biden departs for Europe, but she also downplayed the need to do so.

“There is also broad agreement in Congress among Democrats who we need to support a unified path forward,” Psaki said. “What we’re talking about here is the nitty gritty details.”

But several major provisions of the package to expand social safety net programs remained unsettled on Wednesday. Chief among them: how to pay for it.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) unveiled a proposal early Wednesday morning to tax billionaires’ investment gains annually. The proposal would affect taxpayers with assets of more than $1 billion or income of more than $100 million for three years in a row.  

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) appeared skeptical, telling reporters that it was “convoluted” but later stressed that “you should be paying your fair share.”  

Democrats are also still haggling over expanding Medicare and Medicaid, as well as allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. Absent a reversal by Manchin, paid family and medical leave is expected to be dropped from the bill, a source familiar told The Hill.

Nevertheless, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced that the House Rules Committee, which is the last stop before a bill hits the floor for a vote, will hold a hearing on Thursday “to advance this spectacular agenda” in an effort to project momentum as Biden leaves for Europe.

House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said the hearing is meant to show that Democrats are making progress and “ready to start moving.”

“We’re serious about getting this stuff done. That’s the bottom line,” McGovern said when asked about the hearing’s significance.

Pelosi told committee chairs that she wants legislative text for the agreed-upon provisions of the social spending package ready in time for the Rules hearing, according to a Democratic aide.

Other Democrats described a sense of confusion after Pelosi’s announcement.

“People were like, ‘Did you sign off on the deal?’ I said, ‘What deal? I don’t know!’” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the Congressional Progressive Caucus leader.

Blowing through self-imposed deadlines is hardly new for Congress, where lawmakers struggle to even get must-pass bills like funding the government or raising the debt ceiling done on time.

“We’re used to it,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “We roll with the process. … This is following the normal pattern.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) added that she doesn’t “subscribe to all these deadlines” but that Democrats “should get on with it.”

“Considering that we don’t meet those deadlines, I question whether or not” public deadlines were helpful, she added. “But I do acknowledge that when you set a deadline it tends to focus people’s minds on getting results, so from that standpoint sure.”

The Senate blew through self-imposed deadlines set by Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) for a bipartisan group to work out its agreement on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and last-minute negotiations dragged out for days even once senators announced they had a deal.

Pelosi and Schumer announced on Sept. 23 that Democratic leadership and key members had reached an agreement on the range of options for how to pay for the deal.

Pelosi had also made a commitment to a group of moderate Democrats in August that the House would vote by Sept. 27 on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. That vote first got pushed to Sept. 30 and then delayed indefinitely amid progressive resistance.

Pelosi this week has said she thinks a framework on the social spending package should be enough to hold a vote on the bipartisan bill. But progressives are still signaling reluctance if there isn’t firm legislative text for the other measure.

“If there’s a strong, strong framework, the president says that he supports this, then maybe. That’s not even a definite. It’s a maybe,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.).

Yet other Democrats are signaling impatience with repeatedly extending the negotiations.

“I don’t think we’re in a position to keep kicking the can down the road. Infrastructure is very important, and we need to make sure that we meet the deadline that is imminent,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), head of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Mike Lillis, Scott Wong and Morgan Chalfant contributed. 

Tags Ben Cardin Build Back Better Charles Schumer Climate change Dick Durbin Infrastructure Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin Joyce Beatty Mazie Hirono Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal Ron Wyden Steny Hoyer Tim Kaine
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