Democratic leaders look to unite their party ahead of major spending push

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For months, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has been pushing a two-track plan to get President Biden’s domestic spending priorities through Congress, attempting to balance the priorities of both the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party.

Step one of the New York Democrat’s plan is a $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal that passed the Senate on Tuesday with 19 Republicans, in addition to all 50 Democrats, voting for it. The second, much larger step is the $3.5 trillion budget resolution, which moved forward in the Senate early Wednesday morning on a Democratic party-line vote.

Schumer is looking to pass the budget resolution via a parliamentary process known as reconciliation, which would allow Democrats to thwart a Republican filibuster. But reconciliation would require every Senate Democrat to vote for the final budget bill in the face of unanimous opposition from the GOP.

Chuck Schumer
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaking about the infrastructure vote on Wednesday. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she will not take up the bipartisan deal for a vote until the larger budget reconciliation bill has also passed, as progressives in both chambers have stated that the bipartisan deal — which allots $550 billion in new spending for roads, bridges, railways, ports, broadband internet and the electrical grid — spends too little on climate and social safety net programs.

The $3.5 trillion budget proposal, primarily written by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and agreed to by Democrats on the Budget Committee, which he chairs, will now have its details negotiated by the full Democratic caucus. The initial plan includes provisions that would expand Medicare coverage, institute universal pre-K, fund elder care and establish a Civilian Climate Corps, with some of the funding coming from higher taxes on corporations and Americans making over $400,000.

“What we’re doing here isn’t easy,” Schumer said of the delicate process at a Wednesday press conference. “We’ve labored for months and months to reach this point, and we have no illusions. Maybe the hardest work is yet to come, but we are united in a desire to get it done. So far, so good.”

Schumer likely has his work cut out for him as he struggles to keep Senate Democrats in line. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a moderate who helped negotiate the smaller infrastructure package, said Wednesday that he was concerned about the size of the budget resolution.

Joe Manchin
Sen. Joe Manchin with reporters. (Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/Shutterstock)

“Early this morning, I voted ‘YES’ on a procedural vote to move forward on the budget reconciliation process because I believe it is important to discuss the fiscal policy future of this country,” Manchin said in a statement. “However, I have serious concerns about the grave consequences facing West Virginians and every American family if Congress decides to spend another $3.5 trillion.”

Manchin expressed concerns about the national debt and “overheating” the economy, but he has previously expressed support for pairing some sort of budget deal with the bipartisan agreement. The West Virginia senator negotiated down parts of the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill that passed in March before eventually voting for it.

“Look, there are some in my caucus who might believe it’s too much, there are some in my caucus who believe it’s too little,” Schumer said Wednesday when asked about Manchin’s comments. “The original bill that Sen. Sanders put in was $6 trillion. I supported that. I can tell you this, in reconciliation: One, we are going to all come together to get something done, and two, it will have every part of the Biden plan in a big, bold, robust way.”

When pressed on the intraparty disagreements, Schumer noted the diversity of views but said Democrats had made it this far via mutual respect.

“Every member of our caucus realizes that unity is our strength, and with 50 votes in a time when Republicans on too many issues refuse to cooperate at all ... we all need to be unified, and everyone knows that,” Schumer said. “That doesn’t mean people don’t fight for their beliefs, but at the end of the day we have to come together. Thus far we have. Is it going to be easy on reconciliation? Absolutely not. But if past is prologue, we got a chance, a good, decent chance.”

Chuck Schumer, right, and Bernie Sanders
Schumer with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on Monday. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Republicans are hoping Manchin and fellow moderate Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona will scuttle the bill. Sinema said last month she does “not support a bill that costs $3.5 trillion.”

“I know, from talking to both of them, there are concerns about the size and about the various tax increases,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D. “Their vote is the whole enchilada. If they want to stop this thing, they can. And I hope they will use that power.”

On the other end of the ideological spectrum, a large bloc of House Democrats said Tuesday they wouldn’t vote for the bipartisan deal unless it came paired with the larger reconciliation bill. Pelosi has consistently reiterated her position that she won’t take up the infrastructure bill unless the budget resolution is passed along with it.

In a letter to Schumer and Pelosi, the Congressional Progressive Caucus said a survey of its 96 members found that a majority would not pass one without the other. And given the Democrats’ narrow House majority, it would be difficult for either bill to pass the chamber without broad support from progressives. This is particularly true of the budget, which is unlikely to garner any support from House Republicans.

“These results affirm the urgency of ensuring that the Senate’s desire to pass a narrower bipartisan infrastructure agreement does not come at the expense of the full-scope investments our communities need, want, and deserve,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Our caucus is clear: The bipartisan bill will only be passed if a package of social, human and climate infrastructure — reflecting long-standing Democratic priorities — is passed simultaneously through budget reconciliation.”

Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at an event on Tuesday. (Nick Otto/AP)

Democratic leaders said the House would be called back from recess early, returning Aug. 23 to formally consider the budget resolution. Schumer and Biden set a preliminary deadline of Sept. 15 for the various committees to finish their work.

While Biden and the bipartisan group praised the passage Tuesday as a sign that Washington could still get things done, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said that a number of Republicans embraced the bipartisan bill in large part because they knew that the Democrats could pass infrastructure legislation without them.

“There were only two choices here,” Romney, who was heavily involved in the negotiations, told Politico. “One option is: We do a bipartisan bill. And the other option is: The Democrats do a bill on their own. There’s not an option of ‘don’t do anything.’ [Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell recognized this was a better option than just letting the Democrats do this on their own.”

In June, Biden threatened to veto the bipartisan deal if it wasn’t accompanied by the larger bill, but later walked back that position after criticism from Republicans. On Tuesday he said, “I think we will get enough Democrats to vote for it, and I think that the House will eventually put two bills on my desk: one on infrastructure and one on reconciliation.”

Asked if the House should take up the bipartisan bill on its own, the president sidestepped the question with a laugh, saying, “We’ll get it done. I’ll get both.”


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