Congressional Democrats have left Washington with one tricky task for the Fourth of July recess: Hang together on infrastructure despite growing restlessness from all corners of the party.
House Democrats took a big step forward Thursday, approving a $715 billion transportation bill that party leaders say could be the legislative framework for holding a floor vote on President Joe Biden’s infrastructure deal with the GOP this year. The bill was even bipartisan, with two Republicans backing it.
“We’ve just passed a major piece of legislation, which is not the president’s [infrastructure] plan but it is a significant part of what the president wants,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a brief interview Thursday. “At some point in time, we’re going to have to put them all together.”
While they eye that decision, top Democrats are also pushing ahead on a filibuster-proof spending bill that would significantly expand the social safety net while making good on the rest of Biden’s long wishlist. But the uncertain timetable for that strategy is unsettling party progressives and moderates at turns, with the latter group of Democrats particularly vocal in nudging White House officials to tee up a vote on the bipartisan deal as soon as it’s ready rather than waiting for the bigger partisan bill to go alongside it.
The effort by Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to please everyone in their caucuses gets tougher almost by the day. White House officials and top Democrats spent much of June shuttling from meeting to meeting trying to keep their votes in line, all with the tightest congressional margins in decades and no actual legislative language to work with yet.
July is expected to get even more hectic. Lawmakers and aides don't expect much movement next week, with both chambers gone and Washington slowing to a crawl during the recess. But some groups will still meet, including Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee tasked with finalizing ways to pay for any infrastructure bill — possibly the toughest challenge of all.
House Democrats hope to take their next big step on their infrastructure plans, approving a budget blueprint that will effectively unlock their filibuster-proof process, by the end of this month.
But some moderate Democrats hope that is not the only big vote they’ll take this month, urging their leadership and the White House to hold a vote on Biden's bipartisan agreement as soon as the text is ready.
“I think we have the votes for a bipartisan bill, as was negotiated and endorsed by President Biden. When you have the votes, you should take the vote,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.).
“Those dollars need to start now,” Murphy said, adding that any infrastructure bill would run into bureaucratic headaches, such as slow-moving local permits.
Murphy, like most other centrist Democrats, also supports a bigger party-line bill passed using the budget reconciliation process that effectively sidesteps a Senate GOP filibuster. What’s critical, she and others say, is preserving support for Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure deal from both parties — and not scaring off those GOP supporters with a huge party-line vote at the same time.
“Let’s get that done, and then we can talk about doing other things that hopefully don’t cost trillions of dollars,” added Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), among a small number of Democrats who say a reconciliation bill might not be necessary at all.
“I’m not sure we need to do one. I’m worried about the trillions of dollars of spending,” Schrader said in an interview, saying that he’d prefer any other big spending bill to be taken up in late fall or winter, at the earliest.
The timing for Biden’s infrastructure plans, as well as Democrats’ bigger separate bill, remains uncertain. Lawmakers are eager to achieve as much as possible before the August recess, but they're already aware that much of the work might fall to September or beyond. And those big plans could also run into trouble as Congress confronts other critical housekeeping tasks, such as lifting the U.S. debt ceiling and averting a government shutdown by Sept. 30.
For now, much of the Democrats' unity campaign is happening behind the scenes. Several White House officials, for instance, sat down this week with leaders of both moderates and progressive groups to tout their planned dual-track approach to infrastructure. House Budget Committee Chair John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), tasked with shaping a budget resolution that can win almost total-unity within the caucus, also held meetings almost every day with members of key Democratic groups ahead of a floor vote as soon as late July.
The coordination isn’t simply on the Democratic side. Leaders of another group, the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, met with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to hash out the potential fate of Biden’s bipartisan deal within the GOP conference.
Some in that same group also spoke this week with the Senate deal’s lead negotiators, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) for further details about that chamber’s proposed compromise with Biden.
Democratic divisions could be on stark display later this month, when both chambers will need to agree to a budget blueprint that allows the party to unlock the reconciliation process. That procedural chore comes with many political landmines, with progressives and moderates outlining vastly different visions of what they’d like the Democrats-only bill to look like.
In the House, Democrats will be able to lose only three or four of their members on a floor vote. While that vote is still far off, many senior lawmakers and aides are projecting confidence that Pelosi and her leadership team will ultimately be able to keep the caucus together.
GOP leaders in both the House and Senate have so far refrained from endorsing or rebuking Biden’s bipartisan deal negotiated with five Republican senators. McCarthy has privately signaled on some occasions that he could get behind a bipartisan deal, while bashing it at other times, according to several people familiar with the discussions.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in his home state Thursday that he'd like to see the bipartisan infrastructure deal move forward but cautioned that “it's too early to tell exactly whether that will happen or not.”
McConnell earlier this week called on Pelosi and Schumer to de-link the bipartisan infrastructure deal from efforts to pass Democrats' other priorities along party lines in a separate behemoth of a bill. But progressives have warned that they won't support a bipartisan bill without the guarantee of a second package.
Many other Senate Republicans are withholding support for the bipartisan deal until they see more details about its funding mechanism.
Senate Democrats, too, are eager for additional information about the proposal, which has yet to be turned into legislative text.
“I am hopeful that we will have a more detailed bipartisan package … that will have been strengthened and developed with more detailed language over the two weeks” of recess, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said Thursday.
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.
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