The House on Tuesday advanced President Biden’s $3.5 trillion expansion of America’s social safety net, overcoming an insurgency by moderate Democrats that tested Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s grip on her caucus.
In a party-line vote, the House kick-started drafting of the $3.5 trillion package of anti-poverty, education and health care spending that is the centerpiece of Mr. Biden’s domestic agenda and is a Democratic-only affair.
“Today is a great day of pride for our country and for Democrats,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “Not only are we building the physical infrastructure of America, we are [also] building the human infrastructure of America to enable many more people to participate in the success of our economy and the growth of our society.”
House Republicans said the package is radical in scope and does nothing to deviate from the “tax and spend” policies that Democrats have pushed for decades.
“It’s really disgraceful that Speaker Pelosi this week brought us back to raise taxes on Americans here at home rather than to help come up with a strategy to rescue Americans that President Biden abandoned [in Afghanistan],” said House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican.
The vote was a significant domestic victory for Mr. Biden, who is facing strong criticism for botching the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
It was also a large victory for Mrs. Pelosi, a California Democrat, who faced a stronger than expected challenge from a cadre of moderate Democrats. Led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, the “Mod Squad” initially refused to back the spending bill until the House passed a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal.
Mr. Gottheimer and his allies, earlier this week dubbed the “unbreakable nine” by the centrist group No Labels, eventually broke under intense pressure from Mr. Biden, Mrs. Pelosi and the liberal members who make up the bulk of the House Democratic Caucus.
Instead of an immediate vote, the moderates agreed to a nonbinding resolution committing the House to bring up the infrastructure deal for consideration by Sept. 27.
“The nine of us wanted to have a separate guaranteed vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package that we think is the largest infrastructure investment we’ve seen in American decades,” said Rep. Jim Costa of California, one of the moderate Democrats.
Democrats are pitching the legislation as “human infrastructure” to make it an easier sell to voters. They suggest the bill complements the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which focuses on roads, bridges and airport projects.
In reality, the bigger bill amounts to a wish list of liberal priorities such as proposals for climate change, amnesty for illegal immigrants, tuition-free community college and expanded health care. It would be funded by higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
Because the $3.5 trillion package is unlikely to garner Republican support, Democrats plan to pass it in the Senate via budget reconciliation.
The process allows some spending measures to avoid the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster threshold and pass with a simple majority of 51 votes.
In the House, the package also is unlikely to garner any Republican votes. That reality, coupled with the Democrats’ narrow margin in the House, means Mrs. Pelosi can lose the votes of only three Democrats on any given piece of legislation.
The tenuous situation was evidenced in the lead-up to the budget resolution vote Tuesday.
Mr. Gottheimer and the other moderates raised serious concerns about the size and scope of the reconciliation package. Instead of focusing on its advancement, they argued that the House should take up Mr. Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, which passed the Senate earlier this month.
“Time kills deals,” Mr. Gottheimer and the others wrote in a Washington Post op-ed over the weekend. “We are firmly opposed to holding the president’s infrastructure legislation hostage to reconciliation, risking its passage and the bipartisan support behind it.”
The 98-member Congressional Progressive Caucus said the infrastructure deal does not do enough to address climate change. The far-left Democrats have threatened to withhold their support unless the infrastructure deal moves alongside the reconciliation package.
Faced with potential defections from all sides, Mrs. Pelosi pressured the cadre of moderate Democrats into passing the budget resolution with the promise of holding an infrastructure vote by Sept. 27.
“I am committing to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill by Sept. 27. I do so with a commitment to rally House Democratic support for its passage,” she said. “Passing an infrastructure bill is always exciting for what it means in terms of jobs and commerce in our country.”
The compromise by no means settles the issue. Instead, it gives moderates, liberals and Mrs. Pelosi, above all, more time to unify the Democratic conference.
Infighting between moderate and liberal Democrats is likely to continue over the next month as the House and Senate draft the reconciliation package. More troubling is that the Sept. 27 deadline for consideration of the infrastructure bill could arrive without the Senate having passed the reconciliation bill.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, has set a deadline of Sept. 15 for the $3.5 trillion package to be drafted. Senators, however, are not set to return from their monthlong recess until two days before that deadline.
It’s not clear whether the bill will be finalized, let alone drafted before the House takes an infrastructure vote. That puts moderates and liberals on a collision course.
Liberals, in particular, are unlikely to back the infrastructure package without the reconciliation bill through the Senate. “No reconciliation, no deal,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders, a self-described socialist from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats.
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