A Make-or-Break Week for Biden’s Agenda

·6 min read

President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders have three days and counting to unite their party and ensure that their economic agenda doesn’t collapse into chaos.

Pelosi sets a deadline: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced Sunday night that the House would begin debate on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework passed by the Senate on Monday on then vote on it Thursday — the same day on which current funding for surface transportation programs is set to expire.

Pelosi last month promised a group of centrists that she would bring the infrastructure bill to a vote in the House by Monday. Her goal in setting the vote for Thursday instead is reportedly to buy a little more time for Democrats to pull together their budget reconciliation package focused on health care, education, paid leave and climate change — or, far more likely, at least agree on a solid enough framework that will convince progressives to back off threats to tank the infrastructure bill.

Dozens of progressives are insisting that they will not vote for the infrastructure package without the larger budget bill. “The speaker is an incredibly good vote counter, and she knows exactly where her caucus stands, and we’ve been really clear on that,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told CNN on Sunday. “The votes aren’t there. I don't think she's going to bring it up.”

Pelosi, though, continued to try to project confidence. “Let me just say we're going to pass the bill this week," she said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." She later added, though: "I'm never bringing a bill to the floor that doesn't have the votes."

A topline less than $3.5 trillion … but how much less? To get the votes, Pelosi is rushing to make progress on the budget bill. The House Budget Committee on Saturday advanced the $3.5 trillion package, but Democrats still have a long, long way to go before it can be finalized and brought to a vote. They have yet to agree on the ultimate size and scope of the legislation and remain divided on many key details.

Pelosi acknowledged on Sunday that the package will end up being smaller than the $3.5 trillion maximum they had set. “That seems self-evident,” the speaker told ABC News. “Adding up what our priorities are should take us to a number where we find common ground. Can we shorten the time or some other things to make these numbers smaller? That's our discussion now, but we're ready for it.”

Pelosi has also promised her members that the House will not vote on a budget bill costing more than the Senate version. And Biden is reportedly prepared to compromise. “The president has made it clear he is willing to accept less than the $3.5 trillion that has been the sticker price for his Build Back Better plan, even as his aides publicly say that the cost will ultimately be nothing since it will all be paid for,” Politico reports.

Sticky sticking points: As for the details, The Wall Street Journal’s Gabriel T. Rubin on Saturday provided a breakdown of five major areas of disagreement: health care, long-term home care and child care, climate, immigration and taxes.

On health care, for example, Democrats are reportedly wrestling with how best to expand access to care. Pelosi is pushing to bolster Affordable Care Act subsidy programs while House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) wants to expand Medicaid in sates that haven’t done so on their own. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), meanwhile, is pressing to add dental, vision and hearing coverage to Medicare. Democrats are also divided over a cost-saving proposal to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

And on taxes, Democrats remain split over what the corporate tax rate should be, whether the top individual rate should be restored to 39.6% and how to address demands from some in the party to eliminate the $10,000 cap on the deductibility of state and local taxes, among other issues.

Not exactly stuff that can be hammered out quickly over a working lunch.

What do Machin and Sinema want? That all means that Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) remain critical players in determining whether Democrats can craft a package that can pass the Senate and what it will ultimately look like.

Biden and congressional Democrats have been pressing to pin down the two centrists on their demands and red lines. “The main goal is to get all 50 of us together which means that we really need to get down to what are the things that will enable Joe and Kyrsten to say yes,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) told The Wall Street Journal. “I personally am not sure what it is programmatically that they can support. I’d like to get that identified.”

Manchin has resisted such pressure and has instead called for lawmakers to “pause” on the budget package. “What’s the need? There is no timeline. I want to understand it,” he told Politico in an interview last week. “Everybody knows me pretty well. My mind is my mind, not theirs.”

Progressives, meanwhile, say that any framework must include details on what the centrists will support, including a consensus topline number and spending figures for key items, according to a Congressional Progressive Caucus obtained by Politico. “Without both these pieces, it is simply impossible for the legislation to move forward, and we cannot come to an agreement only for it to be undercut after the fact,” the group said in its memo.

Lawmakers look for more from Biden: As irritated as some Democrats are with Manchin and Sinema, frustration is also reportedly growing with Biden. The president and other administration officials reportedly worked the phones this weekend to try to drum up support for the social welfare and climate package. But some Democrats are saying that the president needs to do more. One centrist told Politico that the White House needs to move past “listening mode” and start banging heads to get the infrastructure bill passed.

Biden didn’t do that in public remarks on Monday. Instead, he acknowledged that Democrats may not be able to reach a deal and pass his economic agenda in the next few days. "It may not be by the end of the week. I hope it’s by the end of the week," the president told reporters after getting a Covid-19 vaccine booster shot on camera. "But as long as we’re still alive, we’ve got three things to do: The debt ceiling, continuing resolution, and the two pieces of legislation. If we do that, the country is going to be in great shape."

The bottom line: House Democrats are holding a private caucus meeting Monday evening to try to find a path forward. Pelosi reportedly assured her members again that the House won't pass a bill that won't be able to get through the Senate, but it's still far from clear what can pass either chamber.

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