By Marianna Sotomayor,
Jabin Botsford The Washington Post
Many liberals don’t trust moderates. Key moderates no longer trust congressional leaders or the White House. And few in the House trust the Senate.
As Democrats embark this week on their latest effort to save President Biden’s agenda, they are dealing with more than policy differences among their razor-thin majority.
The rival factions sparring over when and how to pass an upgrade to the country’s roads, bridges and Internet connections as well as an expansion of heath-care, education and climate change programs have made clear in recent days that the trust needed to get these policies into law has greatly eroded.
Democratic leaders’ ability to rebuild unity and get their two-pronged legislative strategy back on track will be paramount to whether they close out the year having delivered on the promises they made to voters as the party heads into what is expected to be a difficult 2022 midterm election.
“There’s no win for anybody until we get both of these bills done. Let’s all be clear about that. We have to be successful,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who serves as deputy chief voter counter for the Democrats’ three-seat House majority.
The spark for the latest round of recriminations was House leaders’ decision — with the backing of Biden — to pull the infrastructure bill from the House floor Friday after liberals threatened to sink the legislation because they would not support it until the social policy and economic package they favor is also ready for a vote.
Moderate Democrats in both chambers, feeling the sting of their infrastructure dreams put on hold, scolded their liberal colleagues over the outcome and accused leaders of going back on their word to hold the vote.
“Good-faith negotiations . . . require trust,” Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), considered one of two key votes in the Senate on the president’s agenda, said in a statement over the weekend. “Over the course of this year, Democratic leaders have made conflicting promises that could not all be kept — and have at times pretended that differences of opinion within our party did not exist, even when those disagreements were repeatedly made clear directly and publicly. Canceling the infrastructure vote further erodes that trust.”
Biden will travel this week to Michigan and possibly other states to build support for his agenda outside Washington and to maintain a sense of urgency for getting it enacted. He is also expected to invite members of Congress to the White House in the coming days as he and House and Senate leaders continue to negotiate a framework and top line for an economic package that would expand the social safety net.
That proposal’s original price tag of $3.5 trillion over 10 years will need to come down because of the demands of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Sinema. By how much remains contentious with liberals, who view the two senators as the biggest impediment to advancing their priorities.
They have warned that the $1.5 trillion figure Manchin floated is far too little.
“That’s not going to happen. That’s too small,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It’s going to be somewhere between $1.5 and $3.5 [trillion] and the White House is working on that right now.”
The Washington Post
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill on Friday.
The role trust has in allowing Democrats to accomplish their goals has become particularly important because of the legislative legerdemain leaders are employing to get the infrastructure and social spending bills through Congress before the end of the year.
The Senate passed a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package in early August that also enjoys wide support in the House. But liberals have insisted since June on holding that bill back until the broader economic package is agreed to out of fear that their moderate colleagues would be less likely to support it if the spending on roads, bridges and ports they favor is already signed into law.
Congressional leaders got behind the idea of moving the bills together.
But then nine House moderates led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) extracted a promise from Pelosi in late August to put the infrastructure bill up for a vote sooner in exchange for their support of a budget blueprint that created a filibuster-proof path for the education, health and climate change funding through Congress.
That idea recently broke down as various lawmakers could not start mapping out a framework for the social spending bill without more details from Manchin and Sinema on what policies they could support. But moderates said they were still owed a vote on the infrastructure bill leading to a stalemate.
Biden ultimately settled the dispute when he traveled to Capitol Hill on Friday to meet with House Democrats and came down on the side of the liberals, conceding that infrastructure was not going to happen “until we reach an agreement on the next piece of legislation,” according to someone in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe details from the closed meeting.
While liberals felt vindicated by Biden’s decision, key moderates were vocal about their disappointment. Many of them pointed fingers at their colleagues rather than blame Biden.
“It’s a sad day for our nation when a few Members of Congress block much-needed results for the American people, not because they oppose the bill before them, but because they don’t trust members of their own party,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) wrote in a statement on behalf of the Blue Dog coalition, a group of 19 moderates including some who represent the most vulnerable districts for Democrats in next year’s elections.
House liberals expressed little sympathy for their moderate colleagues, arguing it was the progressives who are fighting for the president’s agenda.
“We’re not just going to pass one small piece of the president’s agenda, we’re going to deliver them both,” Jayapal, who is credited with keeping the Progressive Caucus together, said Friday. “I think people feel so proud that we are still going to continue to fight for the Build Back Better agenda, the president’s agenda.”
The Washington Post
Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), at rear of elevator, after a meeting on Sept. 30.
While many House Democrats left the meeting Friday united in passing both pieces of legislation before the end of the year, Biden acknowledged the irritation expressed by moderates Saturday.
“Everybody’s frustrated. It’s a part of being in government, being frustrated,” he said.
Now under his direction, Democrats of all factions must agree on a lower top line price tag for the social spending bill that will assuage moderates’ concerns while also leaving enough of the liberals’ priorities intact to keep their support.
In a letter to colleagues Saturday, Pelosi said that the House should pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill before the end of the month when an extension of funding for existing transportation law expires.
That gives the two chambers about three weeks to craft an agreement on the social spending bill that can get through the 50-50 Senate and the House, where Democrats can only afford to lose three votes.
“We need unity in both our caucuses in the House and Senate to get both done. If we get it done in the next 30 days, I think it will be a very — a great help to everybody in the country,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters in New York City on Sunday.
But Gottheimer, who led eight moderates in making the agreement with Pelosi to hold a vote on the infrastructure bill last week, suggested that the speaker can no longer be trusted after caving to the “destructive” tactics employed by liberals.
“This far left faction is willing to put the President’s entire agenda, including this historic bipartisan infrastructure package, at risk,” he said in a statement. “They’ve put civility and bipartisan governing at risk.”
The erosion of trust among many liberals and vulnerable moderates has been happening over several years, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) said last week.
But he argued that his progressive colleagues need to understand the only reason they have a majority with which to legislate is because of hard-fought victories moderates have scored in the country’s most competitive congressional districts and so their concerns should not be dismissed.
“I think that progressives don’t trust moderates, and I keep telling the progressives, ‘Hey, how do we get to a majority?’ I mean, Republicans don’t control any liberal seats. Does anybody know a liberal seat Republicans control?” he said. “There’s no liberal seats. It’s the moderate swing areas that people like myself have that they need to worry about.”
Jayapal said her caucus’s concerns about trust were mostly focused on the Senate where they felt Manchin and Sinema were not being upfront about which policies they would support, leaving the party in an anxious limbo about what could be achieved.
“I never said anything about my House colleagues,” Jayapal said Friday. “I’ve just said that we need to have a way to verify that whatever we agree to does not get delayed or get changed [in the Senate]. The only way we know to do that is a vote, but we’re continuing to look at other possibilities that might get there.”
The path forward remains tricky now that each side must determine what it is willing to concede.
For their part, progressives met immediately after Biden’s huddle for several hours to discuss how they could scale back the length of some programs they prioritize to help lower the bill’s price tag.
Moderate members have spent weeks signaling that they want to make sure provisions such as lowering prescription drug costs and extending the child tax credit are in the bill given that their reelections could hinge on keeping such promises.
Some members expressed optimism that the recent hard feelings will soon fade as the party recognizes that it has more to lose by not working as one than by striking a deal not everyone loves.
“Deals only come together once they’ve fallen apart or you feel like they’re falling apart,” said Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), a member of the Progressive Caucus. “Even if they walk away, they’ll come back. There’s just too much at stake.”
Cuellar echoed the sentiment, noting that while he may not agree with Biden that the infrastructure bill should be delayed, Democrats must unite and move on.
“I think if we get it done, there will be a victory. The question is whether we get that victory,” he said.
Annie Gowen and Annie Linskey contributed to this report.