Democrats Scrounge for Votes to Pass $3.5 Trillion Budget Plan

With moderates balking, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was working to secure their support for the budget by committing to an eventual vote on the bipartisan infrastructure plan.

By Emily Cochrane and Jim Tankersley

WASHINGTON — Democratic leaders worked feverishly on Monday to cobble together the votes needed to push their $3.5 trillion budget blueprint through the House, facing an internal revolt from moderates who have vowed to block the measure until a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure measure is passed.

Approval of the budget plan would be a critical step for President Biden’s agenda, paving the way for the Democratic-led Congress to move quickly to enact an ambitious expansion of the nation’s social safety net over Republican opposition. But its fate was in doubt on Monday as divisions in the party flared, pitting a faction of conservative-leaning Democrats against the party’s progressive majority.

Several centrist Democrats have refused to move forward with the budget before the infrastructure package — the product of a bipartisan compromise that passed the Senate this month — clears Congress and becomes law.

Many progressive Democrats, for their part, have said they will not support the infrastructure measure until the broader budget plan — expected to include universal preschool, paid family leave, federal support for child care and elder care, expansion of Medicare, a broad effort to tackle climate change, and tax increases for wealthy people and corporations — is passed.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi was weighing a plan to tie both items together, coupling the budget blueprint with a vote that would allow the House to take up the infrastructure bill in the future, as well as move forward on a voting rights measure that has broad support among Democrats.

“We must not squander our congressional Democratic majorities and jeopardize the once-in-a-generation opportunity to create historic change to meet the needs of working families,” Ms. Pelosi wrote in a letter to colleagues on Monday. “The success of each bill contributes to the success of the other.”

On a day full of closed-door negotiations and frenzied phone calls, it was unclear whether the maneuver would win over the moderate holdouts and allow the budget to advance. In the narrowly divided House, Democrats can afford to lose only three votes if Republicans unanimously oppose a bill, as expected.

Understand the Infrastructure Bill

    • One trillion dollar package passed. The Senate passed a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure package on Aug. 10, capping weeks of intense negotiations and debate over the largest federal investment in the nation’s aging public works system in more than a decade.
    • The final vote. The final tally in the Senate was 69 in favor to 30 against. The legislation, which still must pass the House, would touch nearly every facet of the American economy and fortify the nation’s response to the warming of the planet.
    • Main areas of spending. Overall, the bipartisan plan focuses spending on transportation, utilities and pollution cleanup.
    • Transportation. About $110 billion would go to roads, bridges and other transportation projects; $25 billion for airports; and $66 billion for railways, giving Amtrak the most funding it has received since it was founded in 1971.
    • Utilities. Senators have also included $65 billion meant to connect hard-to-reach rural communities to high-speed internet and help sign up low-income city dwellers who cannot afford it, and $8 billion for Western water infrastructure.
    • Pollution cleanup: Roughly $21 billion would go to cleaning up abandoned wells and mines, and Superfund sites.

    Ms. Pelosi appealed to Democrats to back the budget, saying that voters who put Mr. Biden in the White House and their party in control of Congress were watching to see whether they would squander the opportunity to put in place a “transformative” measure, according to a person familiar with her comments.

    Cabinet secretaries and some high-ranking White House officials have called wayward Democrats in recent days, urging them to support the budget and stressing that Mr. Biden backed Ms. Pelosi’s insistence on moving it in tandem with the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

    Democratic leaders have repeatedly said that the House would take up the infrastructure bill before Oct. 1, when several of its provisions are set to take effect.

    By that time, they hope to have made progress on a huge social policy bill they plan to advance Congress through the fast-track reconciliation process, in which the details of the budget blueprint are laid out in a package that is shielded from a filibuster, allowing it to pass over the objections of Republicans. That process, too, promises to be plagued by divisions among Democrats who disagree on how expansive their legislation should be and how much it should cost.

    Nine moderate or conservative Democrats have said they will not back down from their insistence that the bipartisan infrastructure bill move before the budget plan, even as some of them say they plan to ultimately support the blueprint and the reconciliation bill that springs from it.

    “You don’t hold up a major priority of the country, and millions of jobs, as some form of leverage,” the Democrats wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece published on Sunday evening. “The infrastructure bill is not a political football.”

    The group includes Representatives Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey; Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia; Ed Case of Hawaii; Jared Golden of Maine; Kurt Schrader of Oregon; Jim Costa of California; and Henry Cuellar, Vicente Gonzalez and Filemon Vela of Texas.

    Politics Updates

    Representative Stephanie Murphy, Democrat of Florida, added to the dissent on Monday in an opinion piece in The Orlando Sentinel in which she declared herself as “bewildered by my party’s misguided strategy to make passage of the popular, already written, bipartisan infrastructure bill contingent upon passage of the contentious, yet-to-be-written, partisan reconciliation bill.”

    “I cannot in good conscience vote to start the reconciliation process unless we also finish our work on the infrastructure bill,” she wrote.

    The group’s members have said they believe they are doing what Mr. Biden wants, citing comments he made this year calling on Congress to pass the infrastructure bill as quickly as possible. That view has irked many administration officials, who say the president never endorsed moving either the infrastructure deal or the budget blueprint before the other.

    Mr. Biden “has been clear that he wants both bills on his desk and that he looks forward to signing each,” Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, said in an emailed statement. “He support’s Speaker Pelosi’s approach to the rule because it provides for consideration of the Build Back Better agenda, the historic bipartisan infrastructure bill and critical voting rights legislation.”

    Administration officials who have made calls to the nine Democrats in recent days include Martin J. Walsh, the labor secretary; Jennifer M. Granholm, the energy secretary; Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary; Shalanda Young, the acting head of the White House Office of Management and Budget; Louisa Terrell, the director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs; and Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council.

    The officials sought to allay the moderates’ fears that Mr. Biden would sign the larger spending bill without the infrastructure bill, according to a person familiar with the calls; they also voiced support for Ms. Pelosi’s push to pass both bills by Oct. 1. Some officials have stressed benefits of the larger bill, including proposals to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.

    Ms. Pelosi and her top deputies, backed by dozens of progressive lawmakers, remain equally adamant that the infrastructure vote will happen only after the Senate approves the budget package. In a series of open letters to members over the past week, senior Democrats framed a vote in support of the budget blueprint as a chance to shape key legislation and ensure passage of party priorities.

    “Ensuring a bicameral reconciliation process, with true input from the House prior to the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure legislation, is essential to advancing critical Democratic priorities on infrastructure and so much more,” wrote Representative Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a scathing critic of the bipartisan deal.

    Progressive groups have also pushed ads targeting the nine Democrats as obstructing the Biden administration’s agenda. No Labels, a centrist political organization, called the group “the unbreakable nine” in a dramatic montage comparing them to figures like Abraham Lincoln and a fictional senator from the film “Bulworth,” in which a suicidal politician decides to tell the truth.

    While some Republicans are expected to support the bipartisan infrastructure bill, they are adamantly opposed to the budget blueprint, citing concerns about its size, proposed tax increases and the possibility that increased spending will worsen inflation.

    “Don’t be surprised, when you write a bill that you know no Republican will vote for it, that none do,” Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, said at a hearing on Monday. “Frankly, that’s why you’ve linked the infrastructure bill and this bill together, because you’re beating your own members into submission.”

    Referring to the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, he added: “If you put it on the floor, it would pass immediately, but you’ve chosen to use it as a weapon against your own members.”

    Also on Monday, White House economists sought to push back against Republican warnings about inflation. They wrote in a blog post that Mr. Biden’s plans to spend trillions on roads, bridges, child care, a transition to low-carbon energy and a variety of other economic initiatives would have “little, if any, effect” on inflation in the months to come and would help relieve price pressures in the long term.

    Luke Broadwater and Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.

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