Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer’s strategy to force through Democrats’ domestic agenda flamed out spectacularly in September. They’re ready to try it all over again.
With their party’s long-sought priorities on the line, the speaker and Senate majority leader are hustling to clinch a deal as soon as possible that would lock in evasive centrists on a framework for President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion social spending package. That framework, in turn, would free up needed progressive votes for a bipartisan infrastructure bill by Oct. 31.
It’s a rerun of the playbook Democratic leaders used just weeks ago, only to have it blow up in their faces. But Democrats insist it actually might work this time, with political and legislative incentives aligning more neatly than they did in September.
Pelosi and Schumer are telling their members they need to secure an agreement on the social spending bill by the end of this week. The House could even vote by the end of the month.
“We’re getting there. The gaps are closing. The vibe in our caucus is different. Folks are being more clear-eyed about: ‘We’ve got to get this done,’” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who is close to Biden. “There’s a lot of reasons why these next 10 days are critical. To chip shot this into December is really, really problematic.”
Democrats are also getting more specific, with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) tossing a carbon tax and a green utilities program overboard while insisting on means testing much of the bill. Biden also told progressives Tuesday that an expanded boost to the child tax credit could be made shorter and that free community college could be jettisoned.
Biden’s price tag for the bill at the moment is around $2 trillion and he wants to lock down an agreement before heading overseas at the end of this month for climate talks, according to Democrats familiar with Tuesday’s discussions.
Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) said he left Biden’s meeting with progressives thinking “the president is committed to getting this done as soon as possible. And I was kind of surprised by that.”
Gomez said things remain “touch and go” and it’s unclear how much is finalized, even as Democratic leaders hope to close in on a framework in the coming days.
But it’s clear the momentum has shifted in recent days. Biden and Democrats are having substantive conversations about which programs will stay in the bill, which priorities will be cut and how to knit the rest together into a package both centrists and liberals can support.
“He’s being decisive, he’s showing leadership,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said of Biden after progressives’ two-hour Tuesday meeting at the White House. “I think it’s going to get done this time.”
There’s still much more to get through, however. And Democrats have a crunch of deadlines waiting later this year that they must balance with their last, best chance to capitalize on their full control of Washington and pass once-in-a-generation legislation that would significantly shore up the nation’s social safety net.
Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are the toughest votes to secure, but both were whirlwinds of activity on Tuesday. Each of the centrists met with Biden. And while Manchin was in the Democratic lunch with his colleagues settling on a quick timeline, Sinema was meeting with senior White House staff, according to her office. Sinema’s office declined to comment on her commitment to finishing things by the end of the week.
Though the odds are still stacked against the party, Democrats say it’s clear there’s a renewed sense of urgency among party leaders. Schumer is nudging his holdouts more than ever before, Pelosi is free from the constraints of an agreement with moderates that imploded and Biden is finally engaged in a meaningful way. Plus, nearly everyone has accepted the bill won’t be $3.5 trillion, as originally proposed.
“There’s a real consensus that it’s time,” said the party’s No. 3 Senate leader, Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “We all see the timeline, there’s a lot of struggle about what’s going to go in a bill that’s literally half the size of what people envisioned.”
A month ago, some Democrats privately grumbled that Pelosi was working with an artificial deadline based on an agreement she made with moderates in her chamber — but one that didn’t motivate, and maybe even alienated, key Senate holdouts from cutting a deal. Manchin and Sinema, specifically, are still fuming that the House hasn’t passed the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Still, just a few weeks later, several Democrats involved in the negotiations insist that even the centrists much-maligned by their party’s base for chipping away at the bill are springing into action. At a caucus meeting Tuesday, Manchin listened intently to his colleagues in what one attendee called a “turning point, in that there was more of a focus on urgency.”
Importantly, Democrats on all sides are coming to grips with the reality that all of their demands will not be met. The Obamacare subsidies that House Democratic leaders have pushed for are still in the package, while liberals’ demand for a massive Medicare expansion — something Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called non-negotiable last week — may be significantly pared back.
While jettisoning some policy proposals and slimming the bill seem like unwelcome developments for Democrats, the more specific negotiations indicate that the party is actually down to brass tacks. Still, Gomez said some of the discussion involved “trial balloons to see what the reactions of the different factions are.”
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said on Tuesday morning that the “fact we don’t have a deal and have been gone for 10 days [on recess] means we’ve got to do better.” But after meeting with Biden Tuesday afternoon, his opinion had changed: “I think there’s a lot that’s happened the last 10 days, I just wasn’t aware of it. We’re getting to a point where we can move pretty well.”
It’s critical for Pelosi and Schumer to show they can govern in a sharply divided Congress with the thinnest of majorities. Biden needs a huge win ahead of a global climate summit in Glasgow. And every Democrat wants to put a victory on the board to boost Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, whose loss would be a major setback to the party’s agenda and midterm prospects.
Plus, the nation’s highway trust fund runs dry at the end of October and will need more money from Congress — which the bipartisan infrastructure bill will supply once it clears the House.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) insisted Tuesday that Democratic leaders are still pushing to finalize both a roughly $2 trillion social infrastructure bill and pass the $550 billion infrastructure bill by the end of the month. But even if party leaders can get their warring factions to agree to a framework for the spending bill after weeks of public feuding, that too will amount to a triumph after months of jockeying.
“We’re working very hard to have both of those bills ready to be passed by the House of Representatives before that date,” Hoyer told reporters. “Now, if we make significant progress, that’ll also be success towards those ends.”
Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.