Democrats plan to move forward with infrastructure deal amid fierce infighting between moderates, progressives

·8-min read

House Democratic leaders said a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure deal will be held next week amid tensions within the party over the size, scope and timing of President Biden’s domestic agenda.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Tuesday that the plan will be put up for a vote next Monday or Tuesday despite lingering questions over whether it will have enough Democratic votes to pass.

As Democrats look to push through both the infrastructure deal and a much larger budget resolution, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have been pushing a two-track plan for months, a strategy that has earned the support of the White House.

U.S. Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD) speaking at a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on April 21, 2021. (Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/Shutterstock)
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer at a press conference on Capitol Hill on April 21. (Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/Shutterstock)

The first part of the plan is the bipartisan infrastructure deal, which passed the Senate earlier this year with support from numerous Republicans. The deal spends about $500 million in new money to address traditional infrastructure priorities such as bridges, roads and waterways.

The second part is an ambitious, multitrillion-dollar budget that would address climate change and vastly expand the nation’s social safety net, which will be paid for in part by new taxes on higher-income Americans and corporations. Democrats can pass the budget with 50 votes through a process known as reconciliation — a parliamentary maneuver that sidesteps the filibuster. But doing that will require the support of every Senate Democrat, plus the two independents that caucus with the party.

“I expect both to pass the House of Representatives, and I expect both to pass in the relatively near future,” Hoyer said Tuesday.

While every piece of President Biden’s sweeping Build Back Better plan could have technically been put into the budget deal, the bipartisan agreement — which was panned by many left-leaning Democrats, including the House Transportation Committee chairman — was seen as a way to give moderates a win to prove they could work with Republicans. Many progressives said they would support the bipartisan package only if it passed in conjunction with the larger $3.5 trillion budget deal — a risky strategy that could imperil the first part of the Democratic leaders’ plan.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., center, joined from left by, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, speak to reporters just after a vote to start work on a nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, July 28, 2021.  (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, flanked by Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, speaks to reporters at the Capitol on July 28. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Tensions between progressives and moderates have risen in recent weeks over the upcoming vote on the bipartisan infrastructure agreement. Last month, Pelosi cut a deal with a group of 10 moderate Democrats in which she agreed to schedule a vote on the deal for Sept. 27 in exchange for their support in advancing the budget. But on Sunday, some House Democratic leaders suggested the vote may need to be delayed due to ongoing schisms in the caucus.

“The question is, are we going to work to get to our goal for Sept. 27?” House Majority Whip James Clyburn told CNN in an interview. “Yes, we are going to work hard to reach that goal, and sometimes you have to kind of stop the clock to get to the goal. We’ll do what’s necessary to get there.”

“I would say we’re probably going to slip past the Sept. 27 date, sometime into early October would be my best guess,” House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said on “Fox News Sunday.”

However, on Monday morning, Politico reported that moderate Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., said she would not vote for the budget deal unless the House held a vote by Sept. 27. Biden has worked to win Sinema over in recent months, but she has frustrated her fellow Democrats on several fronts since the president took office.

On the other side of the caucus, more progressive Democrats are insistent that they have the votes to block the infrastructure deal in the House. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, reiterated on Friday that a majority of her 96-member group is ready to vote no on the bipartisan deal if a vote is held prior to the budget passing the Senate. Schumer said Tuesday the Senate will be unable to pass the budget by the Sept. 27 deadline.

While the infrastructure deal could in theory be saved by House Republicans who support the measure, it’s unlikely those votes will materialize unless it’s clear the larger budget plan is officially dead. This is in keeping with the Republican strategy since the beginning of summer, which is to go along with a smaller infrastructure deal while trying to kill the rest of the Democrats’ agenda.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., speaks to reporters outside of Capitol Hill in Washington on August 3, 2021. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/AP)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Washington on Aug. 3. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/AP)

Left-leaning Democrats insist that the $3.5 trillion budget is itself a compromise, as Jayapal and Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders’s original proposal came in at $6 trillion and was negotiated down. Leading progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said Monday she would not vote yes on infrastructure unless the budget had been passed. Ocasio-Cortez also accused Sinema of “changing the terms of the deal after it’s done” in an effort to “tank millions of people’s chances at healthcare, childcare, climate protection, & unions.”

Sinema isn’t the only moderate threatening the larger Democratic agenda. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has repeatedly called for pauses on the budget negotiations, with Axios reporting Sunday he wanted to wait until next year before voting on the final bill. He’s also repeatedly balked at the budget’s $3.5 trillion price tag, saying it spends far too much and risks overheating the economy.

Democrats have also seen defections among their centrist members over a plan to reform prescription drug pricing by allowing Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies. The Senate parliamentarian, an advisory position that can be overruled by Vice President Kamala Harris or replaced, also ruled against a plan that would include immigration reform in the budget deal.

On Tuesday, progressives threatened to tank a bill to avert a government shutdown if funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense was not removed. The $1 billion was then eliminated from the bill, drawing the ire of pro-Israel members of the party.

In a letter to Democrats on Monday evening, Pelosi said the party needed to “take decisive action” this week on the budget legislation, while acknowledging it could come in below the $3.5 trillion mark.

“The President and Senate Democrats sent us a budget resolution with a cap of $3.5 trillion,” Pelosi wrote.

“I have promised Members that we would not have House Members vote for a bill with a higher topline than would be passed by the Senate. Hopefully, that will be at the $3.5 trillion number.”

Former Representative Barney Frank addresses attendees during the Freedom Rally on the Boston Common September 21, 2019, in Boston, Massachusetts. (Paul Connors/Media News Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)
Former Rep. Barney Frank at the Freedom Rally on the Boston Common in 2019 in Boston. (Paul Connors/Media News Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

Former Rep. Barney Frank, a Democrat who represented a district in and around Boston for more than 30 years until 2013, said that despite the infighting between progressive and moderate Democrats, he still thinks Pelosi and Schumer will figure out a way to get it all done.

Frank was in Congress when Republicans took control of the House in 2010, and watched as the congressional GOP descended into a civil war between right-wing tea party supporters who saw little point in government doing anything, and more traditional Republicans who wanted to limit the size of government but still thought it had a role to play in fixing problems.

“On the Democratic side there are some differences, but there is a much greater cohesion around the idea that ‘Hey, government is a good thing,’” Frank said in an interview.

The Republican infighting also took place at a time when the president, Barack Obama, was from the opposite party. Democrats today don’t have that problem.

And finally, Frank argued that Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn are a highly effective trio who are each able to manage different aspects of the Democratic caucus. Pelosi still has credibility with progressives, while Hoyer comes from a somewhat rural district in Southern Maryland and connects well with moderates. Clyburn, meanwhile, has an exceptionally close relationship with the powerful Congressional Black Caucus.

The advanced age of the three leaders — Pelosi and Clyburn are 81 and Hoyer is 82 — is more of an asset than a liability in a setting where institutional knowledge and experience are invaluable when it comes to getting things done, said Frank, who is 81 himself.

“I don’t think the Dems now are as badly off as Republicans were [in 2010],” Frank said. “I think Democrats are going to get something done.”

If they don’t, he warned, the consequences will be dire. “If mutual hostage taking breaks out, they’re all going to find themselves in the minority,” he said.


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