House moderates offered deal to ease Biden budget standoff

Compromising with moderates, House Democratic leaders will try again Tuesday to muscle President Joe Biden’s multitrillion-dollar budget blueprint over a key hurdle, hoping to end a standoff that halted proceedings and risked upending their domestic infrastructure agenda.

Tensions flared overnight as a band of moderate lawmakers threatened to withhold their votes for the $3.5 trillion plan. They were demanding the House first approve a nearly $1 trillion bipartisan package of road, power grid, broadband and other public works projects that’s already passed the Senate.

Early Tuesday, House leaders surveyed support for a potential compromise. It would set a Sept. 27 date to consider the bipartisan package, giving moderates the assurance they want, according to a Democratic leadership aide granted anonymity to discuss the ongoing negotiations.

The potential compromise attempts to meet the concerns of moderates that the bipartisan package won’t be left on the sidelines, but also stays in line with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s insistence that the two bills move together as a more complete package of Biden’s priorities. Pelosi has set a goal of passing both by Oct. 1.

House Democrats huddled privately as a caucus and votes were not yet set, but expected later Tuesday afternoon.

“We’re legislating,” Pelosi told reporters Monday night.

The new strategy comes after a turbulent late night at the Capitol and signals the power even a handful of voices can have in setting policy and agenda in the narrowly divide chamber, where Pelosi has few votes to spare. What was supposed to be a quick session as lawmakers returned to work for a few days in August devolved into dramatic display of differences the moderates and progressive lawmakers over the best way to tackle Biden’s big rebuilding agenda.

Pelosi had implored Democrats during a private caucus Monday not to bog down and miss this chance to deliver on the promises Biden and the party have made to Americans.

“Right now, we have an opportunity to pass something so substantial for our country, so transformative we haven’t seen anything like it,” Pelosi said, according to a person who requested anonymity to disclose the private comments.

With Republicans fully opposed to the president’s big plans, the Democratic leaders were trying to engineer a way out of a potentially devastating standoff between the party’s moderate and progressive wings that risks Biden’s agenda.

Inserting his own wedge into the politics of the situation, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday on Fox News that he was rooting for the House moderates.

“I wish the moderates in the House success,” McConnell said.

The GOP leader had supported the nearly $1 trillion bill that passed the Senate earlier this month, but is planning to lead Senate Republicans lockstep against Biden’s infrastructure agenda

“I’m pulling for them,” he added. “We’re doing our part,”

Despite hours of negotiations at the Capitol, the House chamber came to a standstill and plans were thrown into flux late Monday, as leaders and lawmakers huddled privately to broker an agreement. Shortly after midnight, leaders announced no further votes would be taken until Tuesday’s session.

Pelosi’s leadership sought to sidestep the issue by persuading lawmakers to take a procedural vote to simply start the process and save the policy fight for the months ahead, when they will be crafting and debating details within the full $3.5 trillion budget proposal.

But it soon became clear that moderates were not on board and a series of other private sessions were convened with them for further discussion, including in Pelosi’s office. At one point, bags of takeout food were delivered nearby. What had been a night of scheduled votes came to an unexpected standstill.

Challenging their party’s most powerful leaders, nine moderate Democrats signed onto a letter late last week raising their objections to pushing ahead with Biden’s broader infrastructure proposal without first considering the smaller public works plan that has already passed the Senate. Other moderates raised similar concerns in recent days.

“I’m bewildered by my party’s misguided strategy to make passage of the popular, already-written, bipartisan infrastructure bill contingent upon passage of the contentious, yet-to-be-written, partisan reconciliation bill,” wrote Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., a leader of the centrist Blue Dog caucus, in the Orlando Sentinel.

In the narrowly divided House, every vote matters and a few dissenters could conceivably end the Democratic majority’s hopes for passing any proposal.

With most of Biden’s domestic agenda at stake, it’s unimaginable that Pelosi, D-Calif., would allow an embarrassing defeat. That’s especially true because the package is stocked with priorities like child care, paid family leave and a Medicare expansion that are hard-fought party goals.

The $3.5 trillion budget resolution will set the stage this fall for further legislation to fill in that blueprint, and committees are already fast at work drafting how that money would be spent on the social safety net, environment and other programs over the next decade.

The budget measure is at the heart of Biden’s “Build Back Better” vision for helping families and combating climate change and is progressives’ top priority, all of it largely financed with tax increases on the rich and big business.

Progressives signaled early on they wanted the Biden budget priorities first before they agree to the smaller package, worried it would be an insufficient down-payment on his goals.

But the moderates want the opposite, insisting Congress quickly send the smaller, bipartisan infrastructure measure to Biden so he can sign it before the political winds shift. That would nail down a victory they could point to in their reelection campaigns next year.

“The House can’t afford to wait months or do anything to risk passing” the infrastructure bill, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., said late last week. He’s a leader of the nine moderates.

So far, the White House has backed Pelosi as she led her party in a tightly scripted strategy that aims to keep moderate and progressive lawmakers on board, setting a goal of passing both bills by Oct. 1.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday underscored Biden’s support for Pelosi’s plans. Psaki deemed it a “healthy debate” within the party and said that it was “a high-class problem to have” as Democrats debate the particulars of the legislation.

Progressives are criticizing their more centrist colleagues, warning they are jamming Biden’s plans.

Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., said in a statement, “We are not here to play politics with people’s lives—we are here to pass transformative policies.”

Republicans said the $3.5 trillion effort that Democrats are seeking to advance fails to address “the crisis that American families are facing” and would lead to higher inflation and deficits.

The conservative House Freedom Caucus said it opposes both the Biden budget and the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

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