House Democrats reach deal to adopt $3.5T budget plan


House Democrats on Tuesday rallied behind a new strategy to advance President Biden’s economic agenda shortly after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) struck a deal with a small group of moderates that was threatening to blow up leadership’s carefully laid plans to pass trillions of dollars in federal spending.

The House voted 220-212, strictly along party lines, to adopt a rule that allows Democrats to immediately begin work on a massive $3.5 trillion social benefits package. The rule also requires the lower chamber to take up the Senate-passed bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill by Sept. 27.

In addition, the rule clears the way for the House to vote later Tuesday on legislation that would restore the portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required localities with histories of voter suppression to get federal clearance before making changes to election laws.

The deal Pelosi reached Tuesday provides a brief detente between Democratic moderates and progressives as House lawmakers leave Washington to resume their summer recess.

But the internecine sniping over process, strategy and timing foreshadows just how difficult it will be for the party to stay united when it comes to turning its policy goals into law in the coming weeks as it seeks to show voters that they can govern.

House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said that writing the legislative text for some components of the $3.5 trillion spending plan, such as making changes to Medicare benefits, will be “relatively easy to do” since those programs already exist.

But policy goals such as creating a new universal child care program will be much more challenging to craft because “you have nothing structurally to use to implement it,” Yarmuth acknowledged.

“So those are going to be much more difficult to do,” he said.

Pelosi has asked many of her committee chairmen to begin working on relevant parts of the gigantic spending package and report back to Yarmuth by Sept. 15. The Budget panel would then package everything together and prepare it for a floor vote when the chamber is scheduled to return to Washington in late September.

“It remains for us to work together, work with the Senate, to write a bill that preserves the privilege of 51 votes in the Senate. So we must work together to do that in a way that passes the House and passes the Senate. And we must do so expeditiously,” Pelosi said Tuesday on the House floor ahead of the rule vote.

Pelosi added in a statement that she is “committing” to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill by Sept. 27, shortly before current surface transportation programs expire.

“I do so with a commitment to rally House Democratic support for its passage,” Pelosi said.

Pelosi’s push for Democrats to move quickly on infrastructure and spending on social programs came after talks with moderates dragged on unexpectedly.

The bloc of 10 Democratic moderates, led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), had sought an immediate vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package so Biden could sign it into law before taking up the budget resolution to begin work on the $3.5 trillion spending plan.

But Pelosi had pledged for months that the House would wait to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the $3.5 trillion package was done because of previous threats from progressives that they would oppose the smaller measure until their priorities were addressed.

After talks that stretched late into Monday night and then Tuesday morning, Pelosi and the moderates agreed to a resolution committing to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill by Sept. 27. Democratic leaders also adjusted the rule containing a provision to automatically deem the budget resolution as adopted so that the House wouldn’t have to hold a standalone vote on it.

Hours later, moderates still concerned that the pledge wasn’t binding enough secured additional language in the rule stating that the House “shall consider” the bipartisan bill on Sept. 27 if it isn’t voted upon before then.

The seemingly minor tweak in language ultimately satisfied the group of centrists, which included Reps. Gottheimer, Henry Cuellar (Texas), Carolyn Bourdeaux (Ga.), Jared Golden (Maine), Ed Case (Hawaii), Jim Costa (Calif.), Kurt Schrader (Ore.), Stephanie Murphy (Fla.), Filemon Vela (Texas) and Vicente Gonzalez (Texas).

“It will receive standalone consideration, fully delinked, and on its own merits,” members of the group said of the bipartisan infrastructure bill in a joint statement after Tuesday’s vote.

But progressives, clearly frustrated by the delay over the last 24 hours, were dismissive of the placations made to moderates and made no guarantees that they’d back the bipartisan infrastructure bill if the larger “human infrastructure” package isn’t completed beforehand.

“I just don’t really think this amounted to anything. It feels like, you know, a wasteful fiasco. I think they’ve made a spectacle of themselves,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said of the centrists’ fight over the last 24 hours. 

The competing interests and trust deficit between the centrist and progressive factions that make up House Democrats’ historically thin majority foreshadowed the difficult task ahead for the party’s leadership to ensure they stay unified.

“Yes, we have differences. Yes, we have different perspectives. And we're a big-tent party. And we represent different areas of the country,” said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who helped negotiate the deal with Gottheimer. “But we have been able to come together and pass things that we wanted to pass. 

“That doesn't mean everybody's euphoric, but it does mean that everybody has confidence that we're moving ahead on their priorities,” he added.

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