House and Senate Democrats will have to resolve a bitter internal battle over spending in order to pass the two-part social welfare and infrastructure spending measure that lawmakers hope will become the party’s signature achievement ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
Democratic leaders have scheduled only a handful of legislative workdays in September despite a seemingly impossible to-do list: pass a $3.5 trillion social welfare spending package along with a separate $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill while also ensuring the government remains operating by clearing a stopgap funding bill by Sept. 30.
Even though the party controls the majorities in both chambers, internal disagreements over the spending package may make this feat impossible.
The $3.5 trillion spending package is too expensive for some Senate Democrats, setting up an epic intraparty clash that could sink the entire deal.
House centrists won a commitment from Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pass the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package by Sept. 27, but the powerful liberal faction of the party is insisting the $3.5 trillion legislation pass first.
Pelosi agreed to the infrastructure deadline in order to win the backing of centrist Democrats who had threatened to block a key resolution providing the framework for the $3.5 trillion bill and giving Democrats in the Senate the ability to pass the legislation without needed Republican votes.
The infrastructure bill, which enjoys bipartisan support, would fund roads, bridges, water projects, and expanded broadband. President Joe Biden has urged Congress to clear the bill for his signature. It passed the Senate in August.
But top liberal lawmakers are warning Pelosi against taking up the infrastructure bill unless the $3.5 trillion measure makes it across the finish line first.
“Rebuilding our crumbling physical infrastructure, roads, bridges, water systems, is important,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and socialist. “Rebuilding our crumbling human infrastructure, healthcare, education, climate change, is more important. No infrastructure bill without the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill.”
House Democratic centrists say they back the social welfare spending package, but they warned Pelosi not to bring up a measure that may not have enough votes to pass among Senate Democrats.
They are paying close attention to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has twice warned the $3.5 trillion price tag must come down to win his support.
“I, for one, won’t support a $3.5 trillion bill, or anywhere near that level of additional spending, without greater clarity about why Congress chooses to ignore the serious effects inflation and debt have on existing government programs,” Manchin wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
Democrats have also lost Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, who indicated she won’t vote for a measure that clocks in at $3.5 trillion, telling the Arizona Republic she would work to modify the legislation so that it can earn her support.
Progressive Democrats are ramping up attacks on the duo, particularly environmental advocates who are eager to pass the green energy policy provision in the $3.5 trillion bill.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is among the most vocal liberal House Democrats, tweeted Manchin’s ties to oil companies and suggested he allows lobbyists to write “fossil fuel” legislation he supports.
“Sick of this ‘bipartisan’ corruption that masquerades as clear-eyed moderation,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.
The still-unwritten bill would be historic not only in cost but in size and scope. It would provide free universal preschool, free community college, paid family leave, expanded Medicare benefits, funding for the care of the elderly and disabled, a slew of policies aimed at ending fossil fuels, and much more.
House Democrats, despite the warnings from Manchin and Sinema, plan to push ahead with the bill beginning this week when various committees begin drafting the legislative text.
The main tax-writing panel, the House Ways and Means Committee, started the process Tuesday, unveiling the portion of the legislation that would provide 12 weeks of universal paid family leave and medical leave for all workers, expand Medicare to include dental, vision, and hearing, boost the pay of child care workers, and more.
“This grueling pandemic continues to deliver one-two punches in the form of the public health and economic crises, and the American people are counting on us to build back better,” said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat. “This is our historic opportunity to support working families and ensure our economy is stronger, more inclusive, and more resilient for generations to come.”
The House returns on Sept. 20, while the Senate will convene beginning next week.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, set a Sept. 15 deadline for Senate panels to write legislation for the upper chamber’s version of the $3.5 trillion bill.
On top of it all, the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, and lawmakers are at an impasse over funding for fiscal year 2022.
Senate Republicans, who will need to provide Democrats 10 votes to pass next year’s spending legislation, want to increase defense spending. They also oppose a provision in House-passed spending legislation that would strip out the long-standing Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortion.
Congress is now poised to pass a stopgap bill that will likely last until November or December, but lawmakers will have to decide whether to attach a provision to raise the nation’s borrowing limit.
Treasury officials say they will need a debt limit increase by roughly November in order to continue to pay the nation’s bills, but Republicans are warning Democrats they need to pass a debt limit increase on their own.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said the GOP will not vote to raise the borrowing limit as Democrats unilaterally pass their $3.5 trillion reconciliation plan.
“Let me make something perfectly clear: If they don’t need or want our input, they won’t get our help,” McConnell said in August. “They won’t get our help with the debt limit increase that these reckless plans will require.”