At a press conference Tuesday morning, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Vice Chair Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) discussed House Democrats’ policy priorities. Despite continued division in both chambers of Congress between moderates and progressives, Jeffries and Aguilar expressed confidence about the legislative prospects for President Joe Biden’s “build back better” agenda.
Two bills—the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and the $3.5 trillion budget bill, since named the “Build Back Better Act”—make up the core of this policy agenda. Currently, the latter bill is still undergoing drafting by House and Senate committees at breakneck speed as Democrats try to finish the bill before a Sept. 27 deadline.
Jeffries began the conference with the assurance that House Democrats “are committed to getting President Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ agenda … over the finish line.”
Jeffries turned to the Build Back Better Act, saying that Democrats “are committed to getting [the bill] done in the next few weeks.”
“President Biden promised we were not going back to pre-pandemic normal,” Jeffries said. He explained that before the pandemic “so many everyday Americans were struggling.”
At the time, Jeffries pointed out, most Americans could not afford an unexpected $400 expense. “In America?” Jeffries exclaimed, “The wealthiest country in the history of the world?”
Rather, Jeffries said, the bill would work to create an environment better than before the pandemic. It would do this, Jeffries explained, by creating “millions of good-paying jobs, cutting taxes to middle class and working families through the child tax credit, and making historic investments in home care, health care, and child care.” The bill would also work toward “the creation and preservation of affordable housing.” He called these initiatives taken together “the caring economy.”
Build Back Better Agenda Still Threatened by Internal Division
Despite the optimism of Jeffries and other opponents, the bill has had some critics from within the party who threaten to derail the entire process.
In a Sept. 2 opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), who had long refrained from unilaterally denying his support to the bill, came out squarely against the legislation.
In the piece, Manchin criticized his colleagues for failing to account for the potential long-term consequences of the bill’s ambitious spending. Manchin wrote: “Democratic congressional leaders propose to pass the largest single spending bill in history with no regard to rising inflation, crippling debt or the inevitability of future crises. Ignoring the fiscal consequences of our policy choices will create a disastrous future for the next generation of Americans.”
In the end, Manchin emphasized, “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.”
Another Senate moderate, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has also opposed the spending levels in the bill. A spokesman for the senator said that “Proceedings in the U.S. House will have no impact on Kyrsten’s views about what is best for our country—including the fact that she will not support a budget reconciliation bill that costs $3.5 trillion.”
In the House as well, there are threats to the legislation.
Through much of August and September, a small group of moderates said that they would not support the budget before the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill; progressives in the House made a corollary promise that they would not support the infrastructure bill before the passage of the budget. Both groups control enough votes to make good on their promise and sink the other’s priorities.
An eleventh-hour intervention by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) caused the moderates to relent. Pelosi promised the moderates then that the infrastructure bill would be considered by Sept. 27.
Progressives in the House still refuse to pass the infrastructure bill before the budget is passed, while moderates still refuse to pass the budget if the infrastructure bill is not considered before the agreed-upon deadline. Continued division between these factions has left congressional committees with scant time to create the expansive budget bill.
This short time scale has turned some supporters of the bill into hesitant opponents.
During a meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee on the bill, Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) emphasized her support for the bill, but said that the “rushed deadline,” had created many problems for lawmakers trying to understand the bill. Specifically, she said that lawmakers had not seen much of the bill, including how it would be paid for.
Murphy argued that the House should step back and take time to evaluate the legislation in depth before rushing into passage of the law, and said that she could not support the bill without these concessions.
‘Failure Is Not an Option’: Jeffries
Taking stock of these challenges, one reporter asked Jeffries about lowering the price tag of the bill, arguing that the move seemed necessary in the wake of opposition from moderates.
Jeffries said that House committees were in contact with their Senate counterparts over the question, but that he did not want to comment on the specifics of these “ongoing discussions.” The congressman instead gave his own take on the question, arguing that “Everything is important in terms of making investments necessary to lift up everyday Americans.” Still, he noted the importance of the final bill being acceptable to both chambers.
Despite the challenges coming from internal division, Jeffries emphasized that “Failure is not an option.”
Aguilar added that $3.5 trillion was the price cap, and noted that Democrats would try to get as close to that figure as possible while still crafting legislation that could win bicameral support.
Another audience member asked Jeffries if House leadership would try to encourage progressives to vote for the infrastructure bill if the reconciliation bill is not ready by the Sept. 27 deadline.
“Six days in an eternity in this place,” Jeffries began, “and we’re going to get this done.”
Jeffries explained, “At the end of the day, what motivates us—Democrats across the ideological spectrum—is delivering for the people.” He continued: “This is the president’s agenda … He promised he would undertake this transformational effort to the American people. And we are going to make sure that promise is kept.”
“In terms of discussions that will take place [between leadership and progressives] over the next couple of days,” Jeffries said, “we’re a coalition, not a cult.” He insisted, “We embrace the fact that people have different ideas and perspectives.”
But, he concluded, “At the end of the day, we always land at the highest common denominator and we will do that in this case, we’re gonna pass the infrastructure agreement, and we’re gonna pass the Build Back Better Act.”