WASHINGTON — The House makes an early return from its August recess Monday as Democratic leaders seek to string together the votes to advance President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion economic package, a centerpiece of his agenda.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plan to move the bill in tandem with the Senate-passed infrastructure legislation is threatened by a rebellion by moderate Democrats, who have insisted that the $550 billion infrastructure bill get a speedy vote and be signed into law before they consider the larger piece.
Over the weekend, Pelosi, D-Calif., sought to placate those moderates by setting an Oct. 1 target to pass both bills.
“Any delay to passing the budget resolution threatens the timetable for delivering the historic progress and the transformative vision that Democrats share,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to colleagues late Saturday.
“In support of President Biden’s vision to Build Back Better, we must move quickly to pass the budget resolution this week,” she wrote. “It is essential that our Caucus proceeds unified in our determination to deliver once-in-a-century progress for the children.”
Democratic leaders hope to approve a “rule” Monday that sets up a vote, most likely for Tuesday, on the budget resolution, which would instruct committees to write a $3.5 trillion package of expansions of the social safety net and tax increases on upper earners. It can pass both chambers without any Republican support.
The rule has three parts: the budget resolution, the Senate infrastructure bill and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change voting laws.
But it isn’t clear that Pelosi has the votes to pass the budget resolution yet. She can lose only three Democratic votes before the measure collapses. Nine moderates led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., have repeatedly insisted that the infrastructure bill must be voted on first. Other centrists who didn’t sign his letter — but who share his goals — have been negotiating privately with Pelosi’s team.
Pelosi wants to pass both bills simultaneously, in part because many progressive Democrats say they won’t vote for the infrastructure package unless it is linked to the $3.5 trillion legislation.
That process has frustrated moderates.
“The idea that somehow holding that infrastructure bill hostage is going to quell that debate is just bananas,” said a Democratic aide associated with the moderate wing of the party. “It just doesn’t make sense in terms of how these members operate.”
Biden faces criticism, some of it from senior Democrats on Capitol Hill, about his handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is unclear whether that will get in the way of passing his domestic agenda, which will require pressure on reluctant lawmakers under the party’s narrow majorities.
“I’m not concerned,” said Faiz Shakir, a longtime adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the Budget Committee chair, who is overseeing the crafting of the larger bill.
“A president has enormous responsibilities, but you have a large team to help you get it done. I’m confident he and his administration have the ability to walk and chew gum,” Shakir said. “Whether it’s Afghanistan or the domestic agenda on building back better, all we’re talking about is fulfilling the pledges he campaigned and won on.”
The stakes are high for Biden’s presidency and the future of the Democratic Party, which hopes to campaign on the infrastructure and budget bills in the congressional elections next year.
“I don’t know how this is going to play out in the House with the so-called centrists. Are they going to continue to stand up to the president, or are they going to fall in line?” said Jim Manley, a lobbyist and former Democratic leadership aide. “I’m not quite sure what the endgame is here, but I learned a long time ago not to bet against Speaker Pelosi.”
Sahil Kapur is a national political reporter for NBC News.