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Pelosi’s ‘toughest challenge’: Breaking down infrastructure, spending, debt limit, and shutdown fights

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 9/27/2021 Emily Brooks
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This week is critical for President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda and Democratic congressional leaders managing slim majorities in both the House and the Senate.

Not only do they want to overcome intraparty division over the timing and content of two large spending packages and pass them, but they aim to avoid a government shutdown and a looming debt ceiling crisis that could threaten the economy.

Oregon Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said that getting both pieces of legislation across the finish line may be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “toughest challenge.” It's perhaps even more difficult than ensuring passage of Obamacare in 2010, which she has previously described as her biggest challenge. The Affordable Care Act was a single policy area, DeFazio said, while “this is four different things converging all at once.”


Here is a breakdown of the political dynamics and deadlines dictating this week in Congress:


A bipartisan group of senators negotiated with each other and the White House for months on traditional “hard infrastructure” legislation — spending that is largely popular among voters.

Bipartisan cooperation was necessary because Senate rules mean that normal bills need support from at least 60 senators to avoid being blocked by a filibuster. In today’s evenly divided Senate, with 50 Republicans and 48 Democrats plus two independents who caucus with Democrats (Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Angus King of Maine), bills need support from at least 10 Senate Republicans in order to overcome a filibuster threat.

The result of negotiations was the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which passed the Senate on Aug. 10 with support from 19 Senate Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

It includes $550 billion in new spending and $650 billion in other authorizations over five years, for a total of $1.2 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill would add $256 billion to the national debt over the next 10 years.

But the infrastructure bill is just one portion of Biden and Democrats’ two-track “Build Back Better” agenda.


In conjunction with the infrastructure bill, Democrats utilized a special legislative process called reconciliation to outline a sweeping social spending package of up to $3.5 trillion. The framework includes mandating paid family and medical leave, creating a "civilian climate corps," raising the corporate income tax and capital gains tax rates, and adding dental and vision coverage to Medicare benefits.

Budget reconciliation bills are not subject to the filibuster, allowing Democrats to pass the bill with only a simple majority, 50 votes plus Vice President Kamala Harris as a tiebreaker, avoiding the need for Republican support. Democrats used the process earlier this year to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.

Details of the reconciliation bill, called the Build Back Better Act, are still being finalized — and there is disagreement among Democrats about what should be included in the bill, as well as the overall price tag.


After the Senate passed the infrastructure bill, a group of nine centrist House Democrats in August urged Pelosi to pass it in the House immediately and send it to Biden’s desk. The group, led by New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, threatened to vote against the reconciliation bill if it comes up before the infrastructure bill.

But dozens of members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, said they will vote against the infrastructure bill if it comes up before reconciliation. They see the reconciliation bill as a "once-in-a-generation" opportunity to pass paid leave, universal child care, and climate change provisions, and they do not want to risk the bill slipping onto the back burner and never moving toward final passage.

With 220 Democrats and 212 Republicans in the House, Pelosi can afford to lose only three Democratic votes before needing Republican support to pass either bill on the House floor.

House Republicans are united in opposing the reconciliation bill, and leadership is whipping votes against the infrastructure bill. While several House Republicans still plan to vote for the infrastructure bill, they could not outnumber House progressives if they vote against it.

In the upper chamber, both Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have expressed concerns about the $3.5 trillion price tag of the reconciliation bill, as well as other provisions in it. If either of them opposes the bill, it will not pass in the Senate.

Congressional Democrats had meetings at the White House last week to discuss their grievances about the infrastructure and reconciliation bills. Pelosi said on ABC Sunday that it “seems self-evident” that the reconciliation bill will be less than $3.5 trillion.

To appease House centrists, Pelosi negotiated a Sept. 27 deadline to bring up the infrastructure bill.

In a letter to colleagues on Sunday, Pelosi said that debate will start on the infrastructure bill on the House floor on Monday and will receive a final vote on Thursday — but she did not schedule a vote on the reconciliation bill, which also still needs a final vote in the Senate. Democratic leaders are reportedly working on finalizing a “framework” for the reconciliation bill before Thursday in hopes of left-wing Democrats supporting the infrastructure bill.

Part of the reason to vote on the infrastructure bill before this week is that it includes funding and the reauthorization for highway programs that expire at the end of the month. House centrists appear OK with the timing of the infrastructure vote, but Jayapal is still signaling that progressives will vote for infrastructure only after voting on the reconciliation bill.


On top of their internal squabbling over sweeping spending packages, Democrats face a government funding deadline complicated by Republican refusal to work with them to raise the debt limit.

The federal government’s 2021 fiscal year ends on Thursday, Sept. 30, and Congress has not yet passed bills to fund the government for 2022.

Usually, Congress avoids a government shutdown in this situation by voting for a “continuing resolution” — a bill usually that authorizes continuing to fund the government at current levels until a later date.

The House last week passed a continuing resolution on party lines to fund the government until Dec. 3, and the Senate will vote on it Monday evening.

But the continuing resolution appears destined for a Senate filibuster because it also includes an increase to the debt limit.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen sent a letter to congressional leaders earlier this month warning that the United States’s ability to meet its fiscal obligations will end sometime before the end of October unless the debt limit is increased — a never-before-seen scenario that would “cause irreparable damage to the U.S. economy and global financial markets.”

McConnell for months has said that Republicans will vote against raising the debt ceiling as long as Democrats pursue their sweeping reconciliation bill.

“If they want to tax, borrow, and spend historic sums of money without our input, they’ll have to raise the debt limit without our help,” McConnell said on the Senate floor last week, suggesting that Democrats add a debt ceiling increase to their reconciliation bill or a new stand-alone reconciliation bill.

Democrats hope that Republicans will cave on the debt ceiling increase, since raising the debt limit has been bipartisan in the past and the limit needs to be raised in order to meet current obligations.

House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth of Kentucky said last week that his staff does not think there is enough time to start a process to raise the debt ceiling through reconciliation, but other Senate aides said a debt limit hike could be done through reconciliation in about two weeks.


THE CLOCK IS TICKING, and Democrats are far from settled on how they will pass their biggest legislative priorities and avoid a fiscal crisis.


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Tags: News, Congress, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer, Kevin McCarthy, Joe Biden, Infrastructure

Original Author: Emily Brooks

Original Location: Pelosi’s ‘toughest challenge’: Breaking down infrastructure, spending, debt limit, and shutdown fights


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