Democrats are bracing for battle as they try to unify their slim majorities behind a sweeping social spending package at the heart of President Biden’s economic and political agenda.
Democratic leaders are vowing to plow forward: They have a soft deadline on Wednesday for roughly a dozen Senate committees to finish drafting parts of the bill and want to pass the $3.5 trillion spending plan in the House by the end of the month.
But they face a number of sticking points, including over the total cost of the package and how to pay for it.
“At the end of the day there will be 50 votes, but I think we’re going to go through a very healthy, loud family discussion at times,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who described Democrats as “marking out their territory right now.”
Lawmakers have a full plate even without the massive package, including funding the government, as they return to Washington. And they have little time: While the Senate returns Monday, the House doesn’t come back until next week.
Senate Democrats have been holding weekly committee talks, with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) calling up individual members and holding calls with committee chairs during the August break. They hope to get a deal between the House and all 50 Senate Democrats that allows them to avoid a lengthy conference between the two sides.
“Our goal is to have a joint proposal that the president, that the House Dems and the Senate Dems can all pass and support,” Schumer told reporters, while acknowledging that “there are some disagreements.”
Complicating their task are the razor thin majorities. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can lose no more than three members of her caucus, and Schumer can’t lose a single Democratic vote.
Tensions have been building between moderates and progressives, putting pressure on party leaders and Biden.
As part of a deal worked out last month with centrists, Pelosi agreed to bring the roughly $1 trillion Senate-passed infrastructure bill to the floor for a vote by or on Sept. 27.
That’s putting pressure on Democrats to have the $3.5 trillion spending bill, a priority of progressives that is to include top party goals such as expanding Medicare, combating climate change and long-sought immigration reform, ready to go in the same timeline.
But there’s skepticism from lawmakers and aides that they’ll be able to hit an end-of-the-month mark. And Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) knocked Democratic leadership during a House Ways and Means Committee hearing, calling the Wednesday deadline “artificial.”
“I don’t think it is asking too much to want to see this bill in its entirety before voting on any part of it,” Murphy said of the $3.5 trillion package, adding that lawmakers “need more time.”
Any move to delay the Senate-passed bill would risk angering the moderates Pelosi cut the agreement with. But progressives are warning that they will sink it if it comes to the floor without the $3.5 trillion plan.
Chris Evans, a spokesman for Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told The Hill that the Senate bill and the $3.5 trillion spending plan are “integrally tied together” and that House progressives “will only vote for the infrastructure bill after passing the reconciliation bill.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) predicted during an interview with CNN that she and “many, many members of the progressive caucus simply will not vote for Sen. Manchin’s infrastructure bill unless it is tied together with the Build Back Better Act.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) backs the infrastructure bill but has called for a pause to work on the $3.5 trillion package amid reports he only supports a much smaller bill.
Both the House and Senate passed a budget resolution last month that greenlights a spending package of up to $3.5 trillion by a simple majority in both chambers. The budget rules prevent the GOP from filibustering the measure in the Senate, though those rules could also limit what Democrats put in it.
Manchin and other moderates have warned privately and publicly for weeks that they are uneasy about the price tag, which Democrats are pitching to pay for, in part, by raising taxes on corporations and some high-income earners.
Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have both said they can’t back the $3.5 trillion figure. Manchin reiterated during an interview on Sunday with CNN’s Dana Bush that Schumer “will not have my vote” for $3.5 trillion “and Chuck knows that.”
Democratic leaders are vowing to move forward, but some aren’t ruling out that the top-line figure could get lowered.
Asked about going below $3.5 trillion, Schumer acknowledged that there was a split within the caucus about if it was too much or too little. While he predicted Democrats would unify, he didn’t specify a number.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) opened the door during an interview with CNN’s Jim Acosta to going lower, describing $3.5 trillion as a “ceiling” and saying there was “a lot of room for people to sit down and negotiate.”
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), a member of the House “squad” of progressive lawmakers, disagreed: “3.5T is the floor.”
Progressive have warned for weeks that trying to scale back the plan would backfire because it would shed votes from the left.
But Democrats still need to iron out many of those details amid a push and pull between not only moderates and progressives, but also House and Senate Democrats.
Senate Democrats, for example, are bullish on using the bill to expand Medicare to cover vision, hearing and dental and want it to kick in sooner than their House counterparts. But Democrats also want to use the money to bolster the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid.
They also still need to settle everything from how big to go on prescription drug reform and the child tax credit to if they accept Manchin’s suggestion of income-based testing for some of the benefits. And there are still ongoing talks about how to pay for the bill more broadly, including how far to lean in on increasing taxes.
Democrats also still have to win over Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, who determines what does or doesn’t comply with the strict rules that govern what can be passed under reconciliation.
Democratic pitched her Friday on why they think their plan to include green cards for 8 million undocumented immigrants complies with the budget rules. If MacDonough rules against it, Democrats would either need to strip it from the bill or muster 60 votes to keep it in.