Nine Democrats hold firm on opposing budget without infrastructure vote first

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WASHINGTON – With just days to go until the House returns for a brief session, competing Democratic priorities are still threatening to derail the adoption of a budget resolution needed to begin the reconciliation process for enacting the party’s economic agenda.

All nine House Democrats who told Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week that they won’t vote for the budget unless the House sends the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill to President Joe Biden’s desk first are holding firm to that position, the members or their offices told CQ Roll Call.

Pelosi has also remained steadfast in her position that the House needs to hold on to the infrastructure measure until the Senate passes a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package implementing instructions laid out in the budget resolution.

Dozens of progressive Democrats have said they won’t vote for the infrastructure bill without moderates in the House and Senate supporting the reconciliation package, leaving leadership to believe the only way to pass both is to move them together. But moderates think there’s enough Republican support on infrastructure to overcome progressive opposition.

The House is scheduled to return Monday from its August recess for what leaders hope will be a two-day session to adopt the budget and pass voting rights legislation.

But nine moderate Democrats — Reps. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia, Jared Golden of Maine, Ed Case of Hawaii, Jim Costa of California, Kurt Schrader of Oregon and Texans Filemon Vela, Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez — have repeatedly warned that if leadership doesn’t schedule a vote on the infrastructure bill, they will block the budget.

Pelosi offered a small concession last weekend, saying Democrats would vote on a rule that sets up debate parameters for both the budget and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but that would not speed up final passage of the infrastructure bill. The nine moderates rejected the overture, saying that while they “appreciate the forward procedural movement,” their position had not changed.

While not part of the dispute, the voting rights bill could also get caught in the crosshairs. Leadership decided that measure will also be part of the combined rule for the budget and infrastructure bill that the Rules Committee is planning to report out Monday afternoon for a floor vote that evening.

Leadership’s goal in combining the three into one rule was to ensure that the moderates wouldn’t block that too. But at least two of the nine, Vela and Golden, told CQ Roll Call they are planning to vote against the rule. Others said they’re considering it.

Failure to reach a compromise with some or all of the moderate Democrats on the budget would, at a minimum, delay plans to assemble a reconciliation package containing a host of party priorities, such as national paid leave, universal pre-kindergarten, free community college and a Medicare expansion providing dental, vision and hearing benefits.

Doing the math

Democrats hold a narrow 220-212 majority in the House. Full attendance requires a majority of 217 votes to approve a measure, meaning Democrats can lose no more than three members on party-line votes. Budgets are partisan blueprints and rules are set by the majority, so they can’t count on any Republican support for either.

Democratic leaders looking to muscle the budget through the chamber could simply aim to limit party defections to three or fewer members. But alternative scenarios also could help them with the complicated math, such as members who oppose the budget voting “present” or being absent entirely. For every two members who miss a vote or opt to vote “present” instead of the usual “yea” or “nay,” the threshold needed to pass a measure is lowered by one.

While the nine moderate Democrats said in a letter to Pelosi last week they “would not consider voting for” the budget before the infrastructure bill, that does not mean they would be willing to register their protest by voting “present.” That’s never come up as an option in the group’s discussions, according to a source familiar with the deliberations who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Still, all nine voting “present” also wouldn’t be enough to get the budget over the finish line. Under that scenario, Democrats would be left one vote short.

While Democrats may hope some Republicans might not vote next week — a few absences are typical every time the House votes — that’s looking unlikely with GOP motivation to vote against the budget high and voting by proxy still in use due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are encouraging everyone to be in attendance and voting,” House Republican Whip Steve Scalise’s spokeswoman Lauren Fine said.

Additional factors

Complicating matters, it’s unclear whether those nine Democrats are the only party members thinking about withholding support.

A source familiar with moderates’ views said others have made similar demands behind the scenes. At the beginning of the week, there were as many as 15 Democrats willing to use the budget as leverage to secure the infrastructure vote, according to the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Democratic leaders and the White House have been publicly and privately trying to shore up votes. Biden on Thursday personally engaged with some members, a White House official said, without revealing details of whom the president contacted.

“The House must pass the budget resolution immediately,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to colleagues on Tuesday, noting that doing so will maximize House Democrats’ leverage in the process and allow them to “proceed first in crafting the reconciliation bill.”

In a statement Thursday, Pelosi reiterated plans to proceed with a vote on the combined rule, which Biden endorsed earlier in the week, but did not specifically mention the budget vote. She said discussions Thursday between the president, House Democratic leaders and committee chairs who will write the implementing reconciliation bill were “marked by a determination to produce results — and soon.”

Once it recesses again, the House is not scheduled to return to legislative session until Sept. 20, though leaders always have the option of calling members back or extending next week’s session if the budget is not adopted.

Either way, the timeline is tight: Committees have a Sept. 15 deadline to draft their portions of the reconciliation package, and the Budget Committee cannot assemble them for floor action until the budget is adopted.
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(Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.)

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