Democratic leaders appear to have a plan to try and resolve the intraparty divisions threatening to derail President Joe Biden’s economic agenda: Show enough progress on a contentious — and unfinished — $3.5 trillion spending and tax bill to ease the concerns of progressives who want to see that legislation done before voting for a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has promised moderate in her party that the infrastructure bill will be brought up for a vote next week, but progressives have threatened to oppose that bill if lawmakers don’t first address a larger package to expand the social safety net and combat climate change. With the prospect of an embarrassing defeat or delay looming, Pelosi, the White House and Senate Democratic leaders are reportedly scrambling to pull together a framework for the larger budget reconciliation bill that moderates and progressives can coalesce around, clearing a path for the infrastructure bill to pass with the support of liberals.
It won’t be easy — but that apparent plan may explain why Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Thursday morning that the White House, Senate and House had agreed to a “framework” for paying for whatever they agree to in their reconciliation package.
“It’s a menu of options, and it will pay for whatever the agreement on the investments comes to,” Schumer said. He added that the menu had been agreed upon by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR).
Nothing new? But while party leaders were clearly eager to tout any sign of progress, they also made clear that the agreement did not mean they had settled on a topline number for the size of the budget reconciliation package, and they provided little in the way of details. So the announcement may not be much of a breakthrough. “If you and I both walk into the Cheesecake Factory and ask for menus, we have agreed upon a framework for lunch, but we haven’t actually decided anything,” NBC News’s Garret Haake noted.
A number of key Democratic lawmakers were reportedly surprised by the announcement and unaware of the details. Some reportedly criticized the announcement privately, saying it was more about trying to demonstrate momentum that making real progress.
"We've been through this a million times. There are many, many approaches as to how you can raise money ... so if that's what the menu is, nothing particularly new I think," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said initially, according to The Hill. And Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said he hadn’t seen the framework. “We don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said.
A rare weekend vote: In another sign that Democratic leaders are urgently trying to reach some consensus on the reconciliation package, House Democrats said they would look to push ahead with a Budget Committee markup of the proposed $3.5 trillion package on Saturday, potentially setting the stage for the full House to take up the package next week. The package isn’t done, though, and Politico notes that “the most critical parts of the party-line social spending plan — including any changes to the $3.5 trillion price tag — would need to come through a leadership-written ‘manager’s amendment.’ And that won’t be ready for this weekend, since it's still missing budget scorecards from the Congressional Budget Office.”
Thursday’s announcements came after President Joe Biden on Wednesday hosted a trio of meetings with 23 lawmakers that lasted some five hours. The White House and lawmakers expressed optimism after the meetings, using terms like “productive” and “constructive,” but the intraparty tensions hadn’t miraculously melted away — and their plan for next week’s infrastructure vote remained unclear.
“There is more work ahead in the coming days, and [Biden] and his team will have follow-up meetings, starting tomorrow, to continue to advance the process of passing these critical bills,” the White House said in a readout released Wednesday night.
A senior White House official told Politico that the most important development from the meetings was that “moderates agreed that they need to coalesce around an offer to the liberals.” But Manchin reportedly refused a request by Biden Wednesday to specify a topline spending number he would agree to, and Democratic leaders are hoping that their menu of pay-fors can draw some specifics from Manchin and other centrists who have balked at a $3.5 trillion price tag.
“Democratic senators say the biggest obstacle to reaching a deal on a top-line spending number has been the lack of success in getting Manchin to lay out precisely how large he thinks the reconciliation package should be and what key provisions he could or couldn’t support,” The Hill reports, adding that one unnamed Democratic senator said it was unclear to them whether Manchin “will actually come to yes on any of this.”
What it all means: The scramble by Democratic leaders is all about restoring trust, or at least a overcoming the mistrust that has emerged between progressives and moderates. “I think having a framework will add more confidence to people as to what we are really planning on doing,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said. “One of the problems now is, people aren’t sure what’s going on.”
There’s no way the budget reconciliation package can be written and brought to a vote in the Senate by Monday — and it’s unlikely that Democrats can settle on a budget reconciliation framework in time, either. So Thursday’s announcements ultimately did little to clarify the path forward on the two legislative packages. The one thing that is clear: The week ahead is going to be hectic.