This week: Democrats hit make-or-break moment for Biden
Democrats are facing a crucial week that could have big reverberations for President Biden ’s presidency as they balance must-hit deadlines and the fate of the heart of their legislative agenda.
Democrats are juggling three bills that would be massive fights on their own: An end-of-the-month government funding fight, a $3.5 trillion spending package that still needs to be finalized and the roughly $1 trillion Senate-passed infrastructure bill.
“The next few days will be a time of intensity,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wrote in a letter to her caucus, summing up the week on Capitol Hill for Democrats.
Congress is returning on Monday, days away from a government shutdown amid a fight with Republicans who are refusing to help suspend the debt ceiling, which Democrats have tied, for now, to government funding.
Lawmakers have until the end of Thursday to pass funding legislation and avert a shutdown.
The House passed legislation last week to suspend the debt ceiling through 2022 and fund the government through Dec. 3, as well as provide emergency funding for Afghan refugee resettlement and disaster relief.
"The resolution is the answer for avoiding numerous fast-approaching crises on the horizon. ... Every single member in this chamber is going on record as to whether they support keeping the government open and averting a default, or support shutting us down and careening our country towards a default," Schumer said.
But the bill will fall short of the 60 votes needed to advance. Though all Democrats are expected to support the House bill, they would need at least 10 GOP senators to also vote "yes." No Republicans have committed to voting for it, though Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) both declined to say last week how they would vote. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who initially told reporters he would support the bill, because of the disaster aid, said on Thursday that he was “back to undecided.”
Republicans have vowed that they will not help raise or suspend the debt ceiling, even though Democrats supported a debt ceiling suspension under then-President Trump . Republicans are trying to force Democrats to deal with the nation’s borrowing limit on their own as part of a sweeping social spending plan that Democrats will try to pass without GOP support.
“We have a unified Democrat government that has decided to govern alone. They cannot put partisan ambitions ahead of basic duties. The party-line authors of this reckless taxing and spending spree will be the party-line owners of raising the debt limit,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
After Monday’s failed vote, Democrats will decide if they will separate the debt fight from the government funding bill. Though Congress needs to deal with funding the government this week, they have more time to figure out how to raise or suspend the nation’s borrowing limit. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen previously warned congressional leaders that they will need to be ready to act in October.
Though top Democratic leaders, and the White House, have warned that the debt vote needs to be bipartisan, meaning it won’t be done through reconciliation, Democratic lawmakers also acknowledge that passing a government funding bill without the debt hike is a possibility.
Democrats are loath to allow for a government shutdown when they control both the House and Senate majorities and the White House.
It’s a big week in the House for Biden’s two-part spending package.
House Democrats, according to a letter from Pelosi on Sunday night, are going to “conclude negotiations on the Build Back Better Act and advance the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework.”
As part of a deal worked out with a group of moderates last month, the House had been expected to vote on the roughly $1 trillion Senate-passed infrastructure deal by Monday.
But Pelosi, in her letter, said the House will start debate on it on Monday and that the bill will get a vote on Thursday, giving Pelosi a matter of days to work out a thicket of sticking points that are threatening to stall one or both bills.
House progressives are warning that they will oppose the Senate-passed bill if the more sweeping social spending package isn’t ready to go. Though some Republicans are expected to vote for the Senate-passed bill, it’s not expected to be enough to make up a revolt from dozens of progressives.
Progressives argued during a closed-door meeting with Biden that the Sept. 27 date was an “arbitrary deadline.”
“It’s just an attempt to pass one bill and leave behind the bill that has the majority of the president's agenda,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
But Democrats are still facing big headaches over the larger package, which Pelosi also wants to bring up for a vote in the House this week.
Pelosi pledged during a caucus letter earlier this month that she wouldn't make House Democrats vote on a bill larger than what could pass the Senate.
Democrats are acknowledging that, despite pledges from some progressives, the $3.5 trillion top-line figure is likely to shrink. Both House and Senate Democrats previously passed a budget resolution that greenlights a bill of up to $3.5 trillion, but that is a spending cap and Democrats could go lower without needing to change the language in the budget resolution.
“I think the writing’s on the wall that we don’t have 50 for $3.5 [trillion]. It’s going to be a painful discussion but one I think we can have and bring to completion," said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “We’ve become victims to some pretty high expectations.”
Pelosi can only afford to lose three votes in order to get a spending package — which is expected to include top party priorities like expanding health care, combating climate change and new child care and education support — passed through the House without GOP support.
But she’s facing competing demands from moderates and progressives, pushback over the top-line figure and concerns about individual provisions including a drug-pricing plan.
Meanwhile, Schumer can’t afford to lose a single senator in his 50-member caucus. And Democrats are still waiting to figure out what Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) will accept.
Manchin hasn’t publicly said what a top-line figure that he would support is, though he’s said he won't support $3.5 trillion. He’s also taken issue with a clean energy program Democrats want in the bill, is pushing for means-testing and work requirements on benefits and just last week questioned a plan to expand Medicare to cover dental, health and vision.
Lawmakers will continue their high-profile probes of Biden's messy exit from Afghanistan this week after Secretary of State Tony Blinken became the first administration official to testify earlier this month.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin , Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday and the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
The hearings will also give Republicans the opportunity to question Milley on calls he had with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army, in October and again in January in the wake of the attack on the Capitol by a mob of pro-Trump supporters.
Initial reports on the calls sparked fierce GOP ire, including some calls for Milley to testify publicly or resign. The White House, former Trump administration officials and current and former Pentagon officials quickly mobilized to defend Milley.