Democrats face a consequential day Thursday on Capitol Hill as they scramble to avert a government shutdown at midnight and salvage two crucial pieces of President Biden’s domestic agenda imperiled by deep internal divisions.
With just hours before government funding is set to lapse, the Senate is scheduled Thursday morning to take a series of votes on a spending package that would keep the government open through early December and provide emergency aid to assist Afghan refugees and natural disaster recovery efforts across the country. The measure is expected to pass and move quickly to the House, where it is also expected to be approved, sending it to Mr. Biden for his signature.
But a planned vote in the House on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill is in doubt amid an intraparty stalemate. Liberal Democrats have threatened to bring down the infrastructure bill unless Congress first acts on a much larger, $3.5 trillion social policy package that includes a vast climate change initiative, expansions of health care, public education, paid leave and child care programs and an array of tax increases.
Both are major priorities for Mr. Biden, who invested ample political capital in the infrastructure compromise and has staked his presidency on enactment of a transformational social policy package.
But centrists have resisted the $3.5 trillion plan, and given Democrats’ slim margins of control, there is currently no clear path for passing it.
Despite repeated entreaties from Mr. Biden and top White House officials, two crucial Democratic holdouts — Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — have refused to specify their bottom line in negotiations. White House officials had hoped to extract a firm public commitment from them this week to eventually vote for the social policy measure, but their efforts have so far proved unsuccessful.
Instead, Mr. Manchin doubled down on his opposition to the $3.5 trillion package in its current form, issuing a blistering statement late Wednesday in which he criticized the ambitions of the bill as the “definition of fiscal insanity.” He did not rule out supporting a slimmed-down version, suggesting he would be willing to reverse some elements of Republicans’ 2017 tax law and expand some social programs — but only if they were subject to income thresholds to ensure federal aid only went to those most in need.
White House officials declined to discuss the details of meetings and discussions with senators, which have intensified in recent days as some Democrats have grumbled that the president needed to play a bigger role in ensuring the success of his agenda.
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the White House, rejected the criticism, saying Mr. Biden was doing precisely what he needed to.
“He knows how to make his case, he knows how to count votes, and he knows how to deliver for the American middle class,” Mr. Bates said.
But it was unclear, with Republican leaders urging their members to oppose the bipartisan infrastructure bill, whether that legislation could overcome liberal defections on Thursday.
“That’s our plan,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California told reporters when asked Thursday morning about the possibility of a vote later in the day. “Hour by hour. You’re moment by moment. I’m hour by hour.”
On Wednesday night, Ms. Pelosi could be seen working the phones from the stands of Nationals Stadium near the Capitol, where Republicans and Democrats were facing off for charity in the annual Congressional Baseball Game. Gesticulating as she spoke into a mobile phone, Ms. Pelosi appeared to be having an intense conversation as she fought to keep the infrastructure measure on track.
Mr. Biden also made an appearance at the game, where he chatted with Ms. Pelosi and Democrats, visited the Republican dugout and handed out ice cream bars.
In a pivotal week, in a make-or-break stretch for President Biden’s domestic agenda, congressional Democrats are trying to assemble a puzzle of four jagged pieces that may or may not fit together.
Making them work as a whole is critical for the party’s agenda and political prospects, and how quickly they can assemble the puzzle will determine whether the government suffers another costly and embarrassing shutdown — or, worse yet, a first-ever default on its debt that could precipitate a global economic crisis.
Here are all the moving parts.
Piece 1: Government funding.
At a second past midnight on Thursday, the parts of the government that operate under the discretion of Congress’s annual spending process will run out of money if a stopgap spending bill does not pass. Oct. 1 is the beginning of the fiscal year, and with larger issues dominating their attention, the Democratic House and Senate have not completed any of the annual appropriations bills to fund the Departments of Defense, Transportation, Health and Human Services, State and Homeland Security, to name a few.
House and Senate leaders were working Wednesday to finalize legislation that would keep federal funding flowing into December to allow more time for the rest of the spending bills to be completed.
Piece 2: The debt limit.
Raising the debt limit is akin to paying off your credit card bill at the end of the month, because a higher borrowing ceiling allows the Treasury to pay creditors, contractors and agencies money that was already extracted from them in Treasury bonds and notes or contracts. It is not for future obligations.
Republicans have made it clear that they intend to filibuster an ordinary bill to raise the debt ceiling, as they did on Monday. For Democrats to do so unilaterally, they would most likely have to use a budget process called reconciliation that shields fiscal measures from a filibuster.
Doing so is a complex and time-consuming affair. It all has to be done in the next two to three weeks, to beat the rapidly approaching “X date” when the government defaults. Janet Yellen, the Treasury secretary, told Congress on Tuesday that the deadline is Oct. 18.
Piece 3: Infrastructure.
In August, with rare bipartisan swagger, the Senate passed a $1 trillion bill to build or fortify roads, bridges, tunnels, transit and rural broadband networks. The 69 “yes” votes included Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, and 18 others from his party. Then it got more complicated.
Pressing for a quick vote on the bill, nine conservative-leaning Democrats in the House threatened to withhold their votes for the party’s $3.5 trillion budget blueprint until the Senate-passed infrastructure bill cleared their chamber. But now liberals in the House are threatening to withhold their votes for the infrastructure measure until the budget blueprint has successfully made its way through reconciliation.
Piece 4: Social policy reconciliation.
Democrats’ exceedingly ambitious social policy bill, which Mr. Biden calls his “Build Back Better” plan, is packed with longstanding party priorities. The House has drafted a 2,465-page version that includes a huge array of programs to combat climate change, the extension of a generous child tax credit, universal prekindergarten, greatly expanded access to community college, increased resources for elder care and paid leave, and a Medicare expansion to cover vision, hearing and dental care — all paid for by trillions of dollars in tax increases on corporations and the wealthy.
Ms. Pelosi had hoped to put it to a vote this week, but she faced two problems: As of now, Democrats most likely do not have the votes, and Senate Democratic leaders have yet to produce a detailed bill that can draw the support of every member of their caucus.
Several conservative-leaning Democrats in both chambers, including Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have said they cannot support the plan as proposed. And because Republicans have made it clear they are unified in their opposition, Democrats cannot afford to lose even one vote from their party in the Senate and can afford to lose as few as three votes in the House.
Mr. Biden has been negotiating with the holdouts to determine what they could support. But for now, the lack of agreement on the sprawling plan is blocking its progress — and leaving the fate of the infrastructure measure uncertain as well.
Two centrist Democrats in the Senate have balked at the price tag of Democrats’ ambitious $3.5 trillion social policy and climate change bill. Here’s a look at the two lawmakers and how they have so far been wielding the power of their must-have votes, even as President Biden tries to win their support for his agenda.
Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona
Ms. Sinema, a onetime school social worker and Green Party-aligned activist, vaulted through the ranks of Arizona politics by running as a zealous bipartisan willing to break with her fellow Democrats. She counts John McCain, the Republican senator who died in 2018, as a hero, and has found support from independent voters and moderate suburban women in a state where Maverick is practically its own party.
But now, Ms. Sinema is facing a growing political revolt at home from the voters who once counted themselves among her most devoted supporters. Many of the state’s most fervent Democrats now see her as an obstructionist whose refusal to sign on to the sweeping bill has helped imperil the party’s agenda.
Ms. Sinema has been enigmatic about her concerns with key elements of the agenda and has largely declined to issue public comments.
On Wednesday afternoon, she and a team from the White House huddled in her office for more than two hours on another day of what a spokesman for Ms. Sinema called good-faith negotiations.
A breakthrough on the legislation could quell much of the criticism and burnish Ms. Sinema’s image as a deal-maker who shepherded a related bipartisan infrastructure bill through the Senate. But liberals on Capitol Hill do not trust that she is actually willing to support the broader spending package.
Joe Manchin III of West Virginia
In a lengthy and scathing statement issued Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Manchin reiterated his opposition to the proposal as currently constituted, saying it amounted to “fiscal insanity.”
“While I am hopeful that common ground can be found that would result in another historic investment in our nation, I cannot — and will not — support trillions in spending or an all-or-nothing approach that ignores the brutal fiscal reality our nation faces,” Mr. Manchin wrote, denouncing an approach that he said would “vengefully tax for the sake of wishful spending.”
He said he wanted to set income thresholds for many of the social program expansions Democrats have proposed, and suggested he would be open to undoing some components of the 2017 tax law.
A former high school quarterback who friends say still relishes being at the center of the action, Mr. Manchin, 73, is something of a unicorn in today’s Congress. As a pro-coal and anti-abortion Democrat, he reflects a less-homogenized era when regionalism was as significant as partisanship and senators were more individual actors than predictable votes for their caucus.
And unlike Sinema, because of his state’s conservative bent, Mr. Manchin is less likely than many Democrats to pay a political price for opposing Mr. Biden’s agenda.
He’s the only lawmaker standing in the way of an all-Republican congressional delegation in West Virginia, a state that former President Donald J. Trump carried by nearly 40 points last year.
Amtrak would see its biggest infusion of money since its inception a half-century ago. Climate resilience programs would receive their largest burst of government spending ever. The nation’s power grid would be upgraded to the tune of $73 billion.
The sprawling, $1 trillion bill that the Senate passed last month — a bipartisan deal that is the product of months of negotiating and years of pent-up ambitions to repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure — would amount to the most substantial government expenditure on the aging public works system since 2009. It includes $550 billion in new funds and the renewal of an array of programs otherwise scheduled to expire at the end of September.
It is also stuffed with pet projects and priorities that touch on nearly every facet of American life, including the most obscure, like a provision to allow blood transport vehicles to use highway car pool lanes to bypass traffic when fresh vials are on board and another to fully fund a federal grant program to promote “pollinator-friendly practices” near roads and highways. (Price tag for the latter: $2 million per year.)
The measure represents a crucial piece of President Biden’s economic agenda, and the agreement that gave rise to it was a major breakthrough in his quest for a bipartisan compromise. But it was also notable for the concessions Mr. Biden was forced to make to strike the deal.
For example, the legislation includes $73 billion to modernize the nation’s electricity grid, which energy analysts said would lay the groundwork for pivoting the nation off fossil fuels. But it contains only a fraction of the money Mr. Biden requested for major environmental initiatives and extends a lifeline to natural gas and nuclear energy, provisions that have angered House progressives.
Paring back the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion domestic policy package will involve difficult choices for a party fractured by mistrust and competing priorities. But in a package that is intended to shape every facet of American life, including public education, health care and the environment, there is room for agreement, even in a thinly divided Congress.
Here are three possible scenarios for how to structure a final deal.
A slightly scaled-back plan that uses budget tricks to hold down the cost.
Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, initially urged his colleagues to embrace spending as much as $6 trillion over 10 years as they began drafting the bill.
To narrow the scope to its current price tag of $3.5 trillion over 10 years, aides said, Mr. Sanders and his colleagues employed budget gimmicks like setting earlier end dates on programs or narrowing their proposed size to lower their cost.
A lowest-common-denominator $900 billion package that extends existing health and child care benefits.
The easiest fallback for Democrats might be to extend the generous tax credits and other benefits created for a single year in the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief law, known as the American Rescue Plan. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog group, that skinny option would total $900 billion, still more than President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan, which, when it passed, was considered huge.
A middle-ground $1.5 trillion bill that invests huge resources in programs to combat climate change.
Progressive Democrats have indicated that they will not vote for the $1 trillion infrastructure bill without ensuring passage of the social welfare and climate change bill. To pass the former without the latter could actually make global warming worse, they argue.
To answer those concerns, Democrats could include the social welfare components of the lowest-common-denominator option — extending the temporary benefits of the American Rescue Plan — while also going big on climate change.