After a weekslong stalemate with House moderates over Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) $3.5 trillion budget resolution, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) finally reached a compromise with the rebels on the morning of an emergency session of Congress on Aug. 24. While the agreement secured advancement of the budget resolution, splits between moderates and progressives continue to threaten the party’s paper-thin majority to pass the budget and infrastructure bills in both chambers.
In an Aug. 12 letter to Pelosi, nine moderates objected to the speaker’s attempt t0 bundle the bipartisan infrastructure bill with the controversial budget resolution. They called the infrastructure bill “a bipartisan victory for our nation” and swore that they would “not consider voting for a budget resolution until the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passes the House and is signed into law.” Later, another moderate congresswoman joined with the nine.
Despite weeks of negotiations with the White House and Democratic leadership, the moderates held firm in their commitment until the day of the emergency session. Desperate to secure advancement of the budget resolution, Pelosi promised the leader of the moderate caucus, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) that the House would consider the Senate-passed infrastructure bill by Sept. 27.
But this agreement has created its own problems for Democratic leadership in the House and Senate.
Earlier in August, the 95-strong House progressive caucus made their own promise not to vote for the infrastructure bill until the budget resolution was signed into law.
Despite its advancement, the budget resolution still is far from becoming law. The House did not vote on the budget resolution itself but rather on a rule that would send the resolution to House committees to be drafted into a piece of legislation. The resolution itself is effectively a proposal to guide lawmakers in crafting actual legislation.
To make the legislation passable on a party-line vote, Democrats crafted the legislation as a reconciliation bill. The reconciliation process allows qualified legislation to be passed by a simple majority; debate on such bills in the Senate is limited and Senators are not permitted to filibuster.
But even with the bill effectively having passed the House, and even with these limitations on the Senate’s deliberations, the way forward for the expansive budget is difficult.
With the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, Democrats have the simple numerical majority to pass the bill—if they unify behind it. But two prominent moderates in the Senate, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have both expressed opposition to the budget. Noncompliance by these moderates threatens to derail the entire reconciliation process.
Democratic leadership remains hopeful that negotiations by House committees with their Senate counterparts can overcome this division.
But the process will not be an easy one.
The resolution is massive in scope and calls for several ambitious new government initiatives to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations, to extend the child tax credit, to reduce carbon emissions with an “extremely aggressive … transformation of the U.S. energy system away from fossil fuels,” and to expand various aspects of the Affordable Care Act and Medicare, among many others.
The two chambers have some stark disagreements about how much should be spent on these programs, which initiatives should be included, and when those programs should expire.
And Democrats have precious little time to work out these disagreements: with the infrastructure bill’s Sept. 27 deadline, the Democratic budget must be passed or ready for a vote at the same time in order for progressives to support the infrastructure bill.
House Budget Chair John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) conceded that this was a harshly short time scale to work with: “It is pushing it. All we can do is try.”
In short, Democrats have a huge challenge ahead of them, exacerbated by increasingly sharp division in the party between progressives and moderates in the House and Senate.
House and Senate committees must agree to a budget resolution to be ready for passage within less than a month. Democrats will also have to work to bring Manchin and Sinema into the fold on the legislation: without their agreement, the legislation will fail even if the joint congressional committees reach a compromise.
Increasing the pressure on leadership, this will all have to be done by the Sept. 27 deadline for the infrastructure bill, as the 10 House moderates continue to insist that they will not vote for the resolution if the infrastructure bill is not passed by the deadline. But if the budget is not ready before that date, progressives will not vote for the infrastructure bill.
Democratic leadership is confident that these challenges can be overcome, but the lack of unity among congressional Democrats is likely to continue to pose significant difficulties to President Joe Biden’s agenda when Congress returns from its month-long recess.