Democrats eye next stage of spending fight

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
Greg Nash

Democrats are bracing for a high profile tug-of-war as they pivot to the next phase of their complex spending fight. 

With President Biden working to shore up GOP support for a more narrowly focused bipartisan deal, Democrats are quietly working to greenlight budget resolutions that will allow them to bypass Republicans on a second more sweeping infrastructure bill. 

But the go-it-alone approach is putting a spotlight on pressure points within the party amid differences on how big to go and what to include with narrow majorities empowering every lawmaker to elbow for leverage. 

House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) acknowledged that some Democrats might be un-getable, setting up a rocky road as the White House and Democratic leadership ramps up its overtures to rank-and-file members. 

“It’s not easy. …And I’m sure that there are members of our caucus who are wary of voting for any budget resolution,” Yarmuth said. 

Part of the headache for Democrats is that they have essentially no room for error. They need total unity from their 50 members in the Senate and near unity in the House, where they can spare four votes. 

If they fail, Biden’s biggest legislative priority is at risk of collapsing because agreement on a Democratic-only bill is key to progressives allowing the Senate’s smaller bipartisan bill to make it to Biden’s desk.

Democrats will need to lean on their members twice: First to pass budget resolutions that include the ceiling for what they can spend on infrastructure and then a subsequent package that fleshes out the details on the Democratic-only package that will merge the pieces of Biden’s jobs and families plan that didn’t make the cut on the bipartisan deal. 

Aware that they have no room for error, Democrats are ramping up behind-the-scenes talks to get everyone on the same page. 

Yarmuth is meeting this week with House progressives and a coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats, known as Blue Dogs, later this week. Meanwhile, Biden advisor Steve Ricchetti met separately with coalitions of moderate and progressive House Democrats on Tuesday. 

Rep. Ilan Omar (D-Minn.) appeared positive when talking to reporters after the meeting, saying that the White House indicated that it was open to their priorities like including immigration reform and expanding Medicare as part of the Democratic-only infrastructure package. 

Both ideas, expanding Medicare and squeezing in immigration reform, have also been publicly and privately discussed on the Senate side though they’ll need to get it by the parliamentarian, who acts as a gatekeeper for what can be included in a reconciliation bill.

“I think we feel better about the strategy,” she said. 

Meanwhile, Senate Budget Committee Democrats expect to talk by phone this week as they start to compare their ideas for both the budget resolution and the subsequent infrastructure bill. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has indicated that he wants to go as high as $6 trillion and pay for roughly half of that spending. 

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the panel, predicted that Democrats could have a top-line by the time they return from a July 4 recess in mid-July. 

“You need that and you need some sense of what the big buckets are,” Kaine said, about the top-line figure. “I think the key here is let’s all get on the same page on this side.” 

Yarmuth suggested that one option for the House would be to wait for the Senate to send over its budget resolution. 

“We have very slim margins here, and it might be hard to get people to vote for a budget resolution that’s not the same as the Senate resolution. It may be hard to get everybody on my committee to vote for a resolution that’s different. … We need every vote, essentially,” he said, while stressing that no decisions have been made.

Sanders has acknowledged that they won’t end up with a $6 trillion package, but he’s also publicly challenging skeptics to name what part of his legislative goals they don’t find worthy of inclusion. 

“For those who say the budget framework I proposed costs ‘too much’ what would you cut? Combatting climate change? Childcare? Universal Pre-K? Paid family & medical leave? Dental, hearing & vision? Housing? Long-term home health care? Child Tax Credit? Waiting….,” he tweeted. 

Democrats need to win over moderates in both chambers who are increasingly wary of big spending.

House leaders have acknowledged that they are likely to lose votes, with Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) already saying he won’t support a budget resolution. Reps. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) and Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), have raised public concerns about waiting until the Democratic-only bill is ready to go before they take up the Senate’s bipartisan bill. 

And while Manchin has signaled that he’s on board with a Democratic-only bill, he’s not committed to going as big as progressives.

“But if they think in reconciliation I’m going to throw caution to the wind and go to $5 trillion or $6 trillion when we can only afford $1 trillion or $1.5 trillion or maybe $2 trillion and what we can pay for, then I can’t be there,” Manchin told ABC News’ “This Week.” 

Manchin isn’t on the Budget Committee but under the Senate’s reconciliation process, any senator will be able to force a vote on changes to the budget resolution that sets up the infrastructure bill once it is on the Senate floor. 

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the only Democrat from the centrists group on the Budget Committee, acknowledged that they’ll need to find a way to bridge the gulfs in the Democratic caucus. 

“That’s why I get to be in the middle of these negotiations,” Warner said, “is to find some breakthrough between where Bernie’s at, where Joe Manchin is at.” 

Naomi Jagoda and Mike Lillis contributed to this report, which was updated at 9:52 p.m.

Tags Abigail Spanberger Bernie Sanders Budget budget reconciliation Ed Case Filibuster Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Yarmuth Kurt Schrader Mark Warner Steve Ricchetti Tim Kaine
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