The paths of the Senate-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJ) and Sen. Sanders’ (I-Vt.) $3.5 trillion spending package have been fraught with difficulties since their introduction, facing pushback by moderate Democrats and conservative Republicans in the House and Senate. Now, Democrats are looking to a new strategy to pass these broad pieces of legislation: Louisiana’s humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of the Category 4 Hurricane Ida.
Both pieces of legislation are packed with new environmental programs. For example, the IIJ would direct millions towards research and development of low-emission school buses and ferries and millions more towards expanding electric car charging locations.
After the Senate’s passage of the legislation, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a press conference that the IIJ had some good provisions for addressing climate change, but that it didn’t go far enough.
Sanders’ budget resolution would indeed do much more. In total, the proposal would devote a total of $265 billion toward what Sanders called an “extremely aggressive [transformation] away from fossil fuels in the U.S.”
Sanders also proposed that with the funding in the proposal Democrats would create a “Civilian Climate Corps,” which he said would give young people the opportunity “to get decent pay and to roll up their sleeves … in order to combat climate change.” Sanders implied that this “Climate Corps” would help in the “extremely aggressive” transformation away from fossil fuels, but he did not elaborate on the way that the group would help achieve that.
Initially, Pelosi planned on bringing both pieces of legislation through the House for a vote at the same time as part of what Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has called a “two-track approach.”
This approach has met with far more challenges than Democrat leadership originally expected. While the IIJ, passed by all 50 Democrats and 19 Republicans in the Senate, has faced comparatively few challenges, this expansive budget resolution has proved far more controversial.
Throughout the August recess, the White House and Democrat House leaders were in drawn-out negotiations with a group of moderates who threatened to derail the process. They refused to vote for the budget resolution before passing the infrastructure bill, recoiling at the thought of making what they saw as a “bipartisan victory for our nation” linked to the much more partisan budget. Pelosi originally brushed off these efforts as “amateur.”
The moderates refused to relent, however, and Pelosi was forced to make an eleventh-hour deal with the moderates the morning of the House vote to advance the resolution. This deal satiated the moderates, who voted unanimously with their party to advance the resolution on the evening of Aug. 24.
But trials are not over for President Biden nor congressional leadership. Because of the deal that Pelosi made with the moderates, House Democrats now need to work at a breakneck, unheard of speed to draft legislation before Sept. 27, when Pelosi promised a vote on the IIJ. Moderates in the House still pose a challenge, as they likely will not vote for the resolution before the IIJ is passed.
Beyond this, the quickly-crafted bill must satisfy moderate members of the Senate. This will be difficult, as both Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) have emphatically rejected the huge spending package.
So Democrats are turning to a new excuse to get these new moderate holdouts on board: Hurricane Ida.
Chuck Schumer said in a press conference: “Global warming is upon us, and it’s going to get worse, and worse, and worse unless we do something about it. That’s why it’s so imperative to pass the two bills.”
On Twitter, President Biden expressed the same sentiment. Biden wrote: “The past few days of Hurricane Ida, wildfires in the West, and unprecedented flash floods in New York and New Jersey are another reminder that the climate crisis is here. We need to be better prepared. That’s why I’m urging Congress to act and pass my Build Back Better plan.”
Tuesday morning, President Biden met briefly with reporters outside the south portico of the White House on his way for a visit to New York and New Jersey.
When asked what he hopes to see on the trip, Biden said, “I’m hoping to see the things we’re going to be able to fix permanently with the bill that we have for infrastructure.”
Asked how he’s going to convince hesitant Democrats to vote for his broad policy agenda, Biden expressed optimism that both bills would pass, saying, “The sun is going to come out tomorrow.”
In spite of the president’s optimism, the challenges facing his party in Congress are great. Over the next month, Democrats will need to draft the spending and tax bill, deal with a brewing battle with Republicans over the debt ceiling, and get moderate holdouts on board. This last will be the most difficult challenge, as Manchin and Sinema have expressed opposition to the price of the bill rather than its contents. On the other hand, progressives are unlikely to support any lower than $3.5 trillion—Sanders’ original proposal was a veritable progressive wishlist, with almost $6 trillion in spending; for these progressives, accepting the lower limits of the final cut of the resolution was already a significant compromise.
It is unclear whether Manchin and Sinema will be swayed by these efforts to link the budget resolution to the ongoing disaster in the gulf coast states, but because of their expressed opposition to the price tag, the effort is unlikely to be successful.
Rather, it is likely that moderates in both chambers will join with Republicans to call for a pause on the spending bill in order to craft hurricane relief legislation. For many, especially in affected areas, immediate relief will likely seem far more pressing than efforts at long-term prevention.