Politics

House Democrats Turn, Briefly, From Fighting One Another to Fighting the Clock

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi walks down a Capitol Hill hallway with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on August 24, 2021.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

If you’ve ever had a much-needed vacation rudely interrupted by a work emergency, you understand why Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, was so surly this week.

In the 24 hours that the House was back in session, its members called to Washington to pass a budget resolution teeing up Democrats’ $3.5 trillion social spending bill, the Rules Committee met three times. In the first of those three meetings on Monday, McGovern was already griping that “I want to move on from coffee to the beverage of Kentucky.” By the second, on Tuesday morning, he noted that “it was Hillary Clinton who said, ‘it takes a village.’ I say, it takes a therapist.” In the third and final meeting and revision of the resolution, he was spent. For real this time.

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“This is the longest shortest week session I think I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “I love you all, but I’m done.”

What was so exhausting? The nine moderates, led by New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who were refusing to vote for the budget until the House had passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill recently brokered in the Senate. Despite risking  abject humiliation in drawing a red line against the agreed-upon legislative strategy of House progressives, Nancy Pelosi, and the White House, those nine were holding strong longer than expected. Who “won” the standoff that nearly broke poor McGovern will depend on how quickly Democrats can work in the next month.

In the end, the Gottheimer Gang agreed to go along with the budget—which passed with unanimous Democratic support on Tuesday—in exchange for a House vote on the infrastructure deal by no later than Sept. 27.

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This is important, because it puts an expiration date on an open-ended commitment Pelosi had made earlier. Her position was that the House would not pass the bipartisan infrastructure deal until the Senate had also sent over a reconciliation bill, with the priorities progressives most value. Keeping the bipartisan bill that moderates craved as a hostage, then, gave progressives leverage. Gottheimer, when asked why he was demanding the bipartisan bill get a vote first, would project a certain urgency about how “we need to get the shovels in the ground now.” Whatever. What Gottheimer really wanted was to free the hostage, so then moderates would have all the leverage to negotiate down the price and scope of the reconciliation bill, as they’re accustomed to.

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Now everyone is hostage to a date, and Pelosi, the White House, and progressives’ leverage is on the clock. Reaching agreement on a multi-trillion dollar reconciliation bill that is favorable to nearly 100 percent of House Democrats, and a necessary 100 percent of Senate Democrats, isn’t easy in any time frame. It will be an enormous ask to get it largely completed by the end of September, which coincides with a deadline for funding the government. Congress also needs to raise the debt ceiling around then to avoid financial catastrophe, by the way. We’d describe their current plan for doing so as incomplete.

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So what if everyone doesn’t get on board with the spending bill in the next month? The Congressional Progressive Caucus does still have some power here. If September 27 comes, there’s no reconciliation bill, and moderates are calling up the bipartisan deal for a vote, they could vote it down. The agreement reached Tuesday, after all, doesn’t guarantee House passage of the bipartisan infrastructure deal on September 27—just a vote. Following the budget vote Tuesday, CPC chair Pramila Jayapal indicated in a statement that her group might play that card.

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“Our position remains unchanged: we will work to first pass the Build Back Better reconciliation bill so we can deliver these once-in-a-generation, popular, and urgently needed investments to poor and working families, and then pass the infrastructure bill to invest in our roads, bridges, and waterways,” Jayapal said. “As our members have made clear for three months, the two are integrally tied together, and we will only vote for the infrastructure bill after passing the reconciliation bill.”

In order to exert that leverage, though, the CPC would have to be sure it had the votes to block the bipartisan infrastructure deal. It may not, depending on how many Republicans vote for it.

In a call with reporters Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said that he didn’t know what the order would be between votes on the bipartisan infrastructure deal and the final reconciliation bill. That, itself, was a changed message, as it had previously been House Democratic leaders’ position that the bipartisan infrastructure bill would go second. I asked him, then, if this meant Gottheimer’s moderates had won the standoff.

“I think everybody won here,” he said. Check back in October to see how those words age.

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