Moderate House Democrats are uneasy over Pelosi’s infrastructure strategy

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Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s vow to hold up a bipartisan infrastructure deal until the Senate approves a larger Democratic bill has caused some anxiety in the ranks, with moderate Democrats uneasy over her tactic and concerned it could cause both efforts to collapse.

The California Democrat’s stance has earned her praise from the party’s progressives who had shown little willingness to swallow a bipartisan Senate proposal they viewed as paltry. But after Pelosi bluntly said that the bipartisan plan would not see daylight in her chamber until the Senate approves a Democratic-only approach — through a process known as budget reconciliation — many liberals signaled they could endorse the pared-back plan.

But the party’s centrist members aren’t yet on board.

“I do have concerns,” Rep. Ed Case of Hawaii, who helps lead a coalition of conservative Democrats known as the Blue Dogs, told CNN when asked about Pelosi’s strategy. “I think that … a bill that can actually pass Congress and get to the President’s desk — I want to pass that. And so I want to strike while the iron is hot.”

Asked if he was concerned that effectively tying the two together could kill both efforts, he said: “I am concerned about that.”

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, another co-chair of the coalition, who hails from a swing Virginia district, said in an interview: “I think it’d be incredibly disappointing if there’s a bill from the Senate, waiting for our action, and we choose to delay it arbitrarily.”

“My hope is that we will move this bill as expediently as we can, when we get it,” Spanberger said, adding that “what I want to see happen is that when there is a bill that can get bipartisan support, that can pass out of the Senate, that will meaningfully impact our communities and our country, and bring jobs for Americans, we should take that vote as quickly as possible.”

Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat who represents a Maine swing district, wouldn’t say if he was OK with Pelosi’s approach. “Plenty of time to talk about that,” he said when asked.

The anxiety among moderates underscores the tightrope that Democratic leaders are walking in trying to unify their caucus behind a high-stakes legislative strategy where they have very little margin for error. It also adds to the calls that Pelosi is hearing from Republicans to walk back her stated plans, but any change in course could risk alienating progressives who want to ensure that a larger bill is not left behind in the pursuit of bipartisanship.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, defended Pelosi’s approach and warned that many progressives will not vote for a bipartisan deal if reconciliation is not advanced in tandem.

“We have an agenda that we have to accomplish, and linking the two bills is the only way it’s going to get accomplished,” the Washington state Democrat said Monday evening. “We did a poll of our members 10 days ago and the overwhelming majority of our caucus said they’re not going to vote for a bipartisan deal without the reconciliation package.”

Top Democrats see both bills clearing Congress in fall

Pelosi allies and members of leadership say the strategy will end up working out, arguing that the two timelines are more aligned than it seems, since both the bipartisan deal and the reconciliation proposal will take months to sort out — and likely wouldn’t see final passage until September anyway.

The House will approve its own $715 billion surface transportation plan this week.

“I think there’s a notion out there that somehow we’re going to be holding on to some sort of product from the Senate for months. That’s not going to happen,” a Democratic leadership aide said. “They don’t have a bill. They have a framework. The committees have to write it, which will take probably weeks.”

Nevertheless, Pelosi’s statement last week — “There ain’t going to be an infrastructure bill, unless we have the reconciliation bill passed by the United States Senate” — has prompted outrage from Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who called on Pelosi to back off that approach.

“I think it’s fair to say I’d like to see us get there, and I do think the only way we can get there is to de-link the two issues,” McConnell told reporters in Louisville on Monday. “They are really separate issues.”

The text of the $1.2 trillion, eight-year bipartisan infrastructure deal still has to be written. But the broad outlines of the plan, which is aimed at bolstering “hard” infrastructure — such as roads, bridges and waterways — and is financed by redirecting Covid-19 relief money and other mechanisms that don’t include tax hikes, has been endorsed by 11 Republicans so far.

Yet there’s a real risk that more Republicans could abandon the bipartisan proposal if Democrats attempt to tie the two efforts together — something that GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina already announced he would do. Unlike the reconciliation proposal, which can be approved along straight party lines under the Senate’s budget rules, the bipartisan plan would have to be advanced by a 60-vote supermajority in the 50-50 Senate.

So Democrats are vowing to include a wide range of proposals in their reconciliation plan — from health care to climate change to corporate tax hikes — in an attempt to fulfill President Joe Biden’s vow to expand the social safety net through roughly $4 trillion in new programs.

Centrists express concerns over price tag

But they need all 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus to get behind that approach — and can afford only a handful of defections in the House. Already, Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon has announced he plans to oppose the reconciliation bill, citing concerns over the associated cost and the fact that it would move forward on a partisan basis. Others could follow suit.

Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan said she is “willing to consider a reconciliation package” but sounded exasperated as she said, “But show me what’s in it. Don’t talk about it in generalities.”

“Show me what it’s going to do for my district, for the country, and then I’m willing to consider it. I don’t love it, and I want to make sure we need to actually spend that money,” she said.

Rep. Dean Phillips, a Minnesota Democrat, said “no” to the two packages being tied together, saying the measures should stand on their own.

“Would I like to see a lot of elements of the social infrastructure plan implemented? Absolutely,” Phillips said. “But I think this is important that we demonstrate that this place can operate. And if we end up getting nothing done because of the objections of either the left or the right, and then shame on all of us.”

Democratic leaders are attempting to unify their caucus behind an overall price tag for the reconciliation effort. First, Congress will have to adopt the broad outlines of a budget resolution before the reconciliation process can proceed — and the resolution is expected to move through both chambers before the August recess.

The budget resolution is expected to lay out a price tag for a reconciliation proposal. And behind the scenes, there’s a lobbying campaign among Democrats over the total amount. On Monday, Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who’s a member of the Senate Budget Committee, said he has proposed a price near $4 trillion — which is higher than the $2 trillion floated by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and lower than the $6 trillion favored by Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

“I’m pretty comfortable saying $6 trillion is definitely too high,” Spanberger said Monday.

“That’s unrealistic, isn’t it,” Slotkin said when asked about the possibility of a $6 trillion price tag. “If you pay attention, Joe Manchin is still in the Senate, so we’re never going to see $6 trillion.”

Others say it will take time for the process to play out — and they expect their party to be unified in the end.

“I think we just have to leave all options on the table to make sure that we get something done,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat from Illinois. “I think (Pelosi’s) smart enough and strategic enough to make sure that is not going to sink anything in whatever direction we go.”

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