Democrats downplay deadlines on Biden’s broad spending plan

Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.)
Julia Nikhinson - Greg Nash

Democrats are already skeptical that they’ll be able to hit new deadlines for getting a sweeping two-part spending package to President Biden’s desk as they ramp up haggling over deep divisions. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) have pointed to the end of the month for getting both a stalled bipartisan infrastructure bill and still-being-negotiated social spending bill through Congress. 

While Democrats feel like they’ve made some progress, they still need to land on an overall price tag and are facing increasingly public jockeying as members elbow to make sure their priorities remain in a slimmed down bill. 

“I think it’s going to be very difficult to get it done by then,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “The drafting is going to take some time.” 

The push to get both the bipartisan infrastructure deal, which has already passed the Senate, and a Democratic-only spending bill to Biden’s desk by the end of October comes after Congress passed a one-month short-term extension of federal highway programs. 

Approving the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill by then would prevent the need for another short-term highway extension. And the timing of the Senate bill is tied to the sweeping spending proposal because progressives have threatened to tank the Senate bill if it comes up on its own. 

“I do think him setting a deadline helped us get the infrastructure deadline, so it’s probably smart,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), referring to Schumer. 

But Democratic senators are hanging back from embracing the new timeline, arguing that the details of the bill are more important than the time frame.

“We’re going to get these two bills done when they get done,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). “It’s going to take a while.” 

Asked about the October deadline, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) added: “There’s no rush on timing. Let’s just do it and do it right.”

It’s hardly the first deadline Democrats have set, and missed, as they try to find unity on the path forward on the two-part spending package. 

Pelosi and a group of House moderates agreed to a Sept. 27 date to hold a vote on the Senate-passed bipartisan bill. But they pushed and then missed that deadline amid a stalemate in the House and Biden telling reporters that it “doesn’t matter” when the two bills pass and that Democrats are “going to get it done.” 

That enraged moderates, who argued that leadership broke their promises or committed to contradictory things. 

“A small far-left faction of the House of Representatives undermined that agreement and blocked a critical vote on the president’s historic bipartisan infrastructure bill,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.). 

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who helped lead talks on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, accused Democratic leadership of making “conflicting promises that could not all be kept.” 

Progressives, however, viewed the deadline as arbitrary. 

Asked about the new end-of-the-month deadline, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), “I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t get it done.”

“That was a deadline that was created by a handful of rank-and-file House members. I think it’s different when the leaders … are creating deadlines,” he added. 

Democrats are still recalibrating after last week’s setback in the House as they try to figure out where they will land on a top-line figure. 

Manchin, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, stood by $1.5 trillion being his top line for a deal and raised concerns about the country becoming an “entitlement society.” 

“There’s been a lot of speculation about ‘what number on reconciliation.’ My number’s been $1.5 [trillion]. I’ve been very clear,” Manchin said. 

But progressives see Manchin’s number as a non-starter. 

Underscoring the tensions ahead for Democrats, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) convened a press conference on Wednesday to fire back at Manchin, arguing his moderate colleague needed to be more specific about what he wants or doesn’t want. 

“The time is long overdue for him to tell us with specificity, not generalities, we’re beyond generalities … what he wants and what he does not want, and explain that to the people of West Virginia,” Sanders told reporters.  

Sanders offered similar advice to Sinema: “Tell us what you want.” 

Both Manchin and Sinema have said they can’t support a bill of $3.5 trillion. But they’ve taken totally different approaches to negotiating. Manchin frequently gaggles with reporters, where he gets peppered with questions about what he’s looking for in the spending fight, while Sinema doesn’t engage with reporters in Capitol hallways, making her harder to decipher. 

Even once Democrats work out a top-line figure, which would be a significant step forward, they still need to work out details on the various programs they want to include in the spending bill. They are hoping the legislation can carry a laundry list of top priorities including new child care and education benefits, changes to the tax code, expansion of health care and efforts to combat climate change. 

But as the price tag for the bill shrinks, Democrats will need to make decisions about if they try to take incremental steps in a greater number of programs or invest heavily in a few ideas and cut the rest. 

“We don’t know if they’re going to knock them out or scale them down,” Cardin said. “I’m not sure if some programs can survive depending on the top-line number, and then if that program doesn’t survive, it affects our attitude on some of the other programs.” 

White House officials met with Senate Democrats on Wednesday morning to discuss the sweeping spending bill. 

But Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said they didn’t get into the tradeoff or which way Democrats should come down. 

“This was not a negotiation session,” Casey said. “It just wasn’t that kind of conversation about mechanics.”

Tags Ben Cardin Bernie Sanders Bob Casey Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Joe Biden Joe Manchin Josh Gottheimer Kyrsten Sinema Mazie Hirono Nancy Pelosi Tim Kaine

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