House Democrats return to advance Biden’s agenda in face of crises

House Democrats are interrupting their summer recess and returning to Washington on Monday to advance President Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda as his administration struggles to contain a foreign policy crisis in Afghanistan and the raging COVID-19 pandemic.

At this politically perilous moment, Biden and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill can’t afford to have two key components of the president’s Build Back Better agenda — a game-changing $3.5 trillion social benefits package and $1.2 trillion infrastructure measure — stall out and lose momentum.

But that’s precisely what’s at risk of happening this week as tempers flare and progressives and Democratic centrists publicly battle over the tactics for moving the pair of spending packages forward. Nine moderates are threatening to tank the $3.5 trillion plan unless party leaders first hold a vote on the Senate-passed infrastructure legislation and send it to Biden’s desk.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is refusing to budge and sticking with her strategy, one backed by Biden and top progressives, to approve a budget resolution that will pave the way for Democrats this fall to pass the $3.5 trillion package without a single Republican vote.

In doing so, Pelosi is effectively daring the so-called Moderate Nine to be blamed for killing the Biden agenda that rank-and-file Democrats, especially vulnerable centrists, will need to run on to keep their jobs in the increasingly difficult 2022 midterm elections.

At the moment, not even some of her close allies know how Pelosi will steer her 220-member caucus through these rough waters.

“I have no idea, but she is good at miracles,” said one House committee chairman.

The process will kick off Monday night. Under Pelosi’s strategy, Democrats will vote to pass a combined rule that would advance three party priorities: the budget resolution to set up the Democratic-only package to expand the social safety net, the bipartisan infrastructure measure and a voting rights bill named for the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).

House Democrats, not wanting to block the voting legislation, are expected to stick together on that procedural roll call. But Tuesday is when the wheels could come off.

Earlier this month, the nine moderates announced they wanted an immediate vote on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill — rather than potentially waiting months until the party’s social benefits package is completed, as Pelosi has long indicated.

On Friday, they reiterated that their position hadn’t changed.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and leader of the nine moderates, said that “the House can’t afford to wait months, or do anything to risk passing the historic infrastructure package.”

Gottheimer noted that he does eventually plan to support the budget resolution but stressed that the House should first “vote immediately” on the bipartisan bill to “get people to work and shovels in the ground.”

While nine is a small faction of the Democratic caucus, House Democrats can only afford three defections with their narrow majority in the chamber and still pass legislation on their own without support from Republicans.

Moderate Democrats in the Senate, who are similarly eager to tout the bipartisan infrastructure bill, got the cover of a vote first on that measure before moving to start the process for $3.5 trillion in spending on party priorities like childcare, free community college, paid family leave and combating climate change.

But with Pelosi bowing to demands from progressives to hold the bipartisan infrastructure bill as leverage to ensure their priorities in the larger package aren’t scaled back too much, moderate Democrats in the House aren’t getting quite the same cover as their Senate counterparts had.

Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), one of the party’s most vulnerable moderates heading into next year’s elections, called for the House to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the budget resolution in the same order as the Senate.

“A failure to immediately send the infrastructure bill to the president’s desk puts at risk millions of jobs and leaves the nation’s economy and crumbling infrastructure hostage to political gamesmanship in Washington,” Golden said.

As Democrats snipe at each other over strategy and timing, Biden and his top advisers find themselves under attack from Republicans — and some in their own party — over their bungled handling of America’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan.

Before Tuesday’s vote on the budget resolution, all House lawmakers are expected to receive a closed-door, in-person briefing on the Afghanistan situation from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other Biden officials. The officials are sure to be pelted with questions about how the U.S.-backed government in Kabul fell so quickly into the Taliban’s hands and what the administration is doing to get Americans and Afghan allies out quickly and safely.

The crisis has added a new wrinkle to an already busy and challenging week. But Democrats say Afghanistan won’t have any bearing on the intraparty squabble over the Biden agenda.

“I don’t believe [Afghanistan] affects the week ahead at all,” Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), a moderate who is not part of Gottheimer’s group, told The Hill.

“The circumstance in Afghanistan is as distinct from infrastructure as infrastructure is from the reconciliation package. Each should be considered independently, and I encourage my colleagues to do just that.”

In addition to Afghanistan, worries over the COVID-19 pandemic, which briefly appeared to be receding earlier this summer, is now rising again among Americans with the spread of the highly contagious delta variant.

A poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that anxiety among Americans about COVID-19 has doubled since June, marking the highest level since the winter surge of the virus.

Against the backdrop of the twin crises, Biden’s approval rating dipped below 50 percent approval for the first time since entering office, according to the FiveThirtyEight average of polls.

Democratic leaders, meanwhile, are holding firm that their two-track strategy is the best way to accomplish their agenda and show they can govern.

Late Friday, some of Pelosi’s key allies, including the Democratic Women’s Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the New Democrat Coalition went on the offensive with missives to the caucus urging support for the budget resolution and rule encompassing the three bills set for consideration this week.

“We have an unprecedented opportunity to meet the historic challenges facing the American people with even more historic progress by passing President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda in its entirety as quickly as possible. That requires us to vote in support of the budget resolution, and we urge you to join us in voting yes when it comes to the floor,” Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and the leaders of the Democratic Women’s Caucus wrote in a letter to colleagues.

Tags Afghanistan withdrawal Antony Blinken budget resolution COVID-19 Dean Phillips Infrastructure Joe Biden John Lewis Josh Gottheimer Katherine Clark Lloyd Austin Nancy Pelosi
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