Nancy Pelosi’s Big Infrastructure Headache

The House Speaker has to corral progressives, soothe the moderates, and time votes without wrecking the fragile infrastructure deal Biden struck with moderate senators.

Last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi made the presence of the House felt, when she said, in reference to infrastructure legislation, “We will not take up a bill in the House until the Senate passes the bipartisan bill and a [budget] reconciliation bill.”

This week, the chair of the House Budget Committee, Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, made clear that for another key stage of the process—the budget resolution—the presence of the House won’t be felt much at all.

According to Roll Call, “House Budget Committee Democrats have decided to forgo their own fiscal 2022 budget resolution and wait to see what Senate Democrats can muscle through their 50-50 chamber” in part because of “the split within [the Democratic] party on the subject[.]”

Why does this matter? Because while Pelosi and the House Democratic leadership are trying to ensure that a second, larger bill encompassing “human” infrastructure and climate protection gets passed along with the bipartisan agreement, they are ceding to the Senate—and its influential moderates—much of the power to determine how big that second bill will be.

In case you have already forgotten all you learned about budget resolutions and budget reconciliation bills during the pandemic relief process in March, let’s refresh. Reconciliation bills, which can only contain budgetary provisions, cannot be filibustered in the Senate, and can be passed with a simple majority. But before a reconciliation bill can be brought to the floor, Congress must first pass a budget resolution. The resolution does not get signed into law by the president, but it does give designated congressional committees spending guidelines and other instructions for drafting the components of any reconciliation bill.

While the budget reconciliation bill is what will become law, the budget resolution bill will force all the parties’ factions to agree, roughly, on the topline numbers. And right now, the factions are far apart.

In June, Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders developed a discussion draft nearing $6 trillion. Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York, a first-term voice from the growing democratic socialist “Squad,” said that “north of $5.4 trillion” means “things are looking good” but “if it’s not, if it’s sliced, then, you know, it’s unacceptable.”

Voices from the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of 10 go in the opposite direction. Sen. Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat, said “no” to $4 trillion, and Sen. Joe Manchin said, “if they think in reconciliation I’m going to throw caution to the wind and go to $5 trillion or $6 trillion when we can only afford $1 trillion or $1.5 trillion or maybe $2 trillion and what we can pay for, then I can’t be there.” There are also reportedly two House Democratic moderates, with Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon the only one on record, prepared to vote against any budget resolution, in order to block consideration of a reconciliation bill.

As of today, the budget resolution cannot pass if five House Democrats or one Senate Democrat defects. The risk of the resolution actually failing to pass Congress is probably low, though Politico reported a “small number” of House moderates “have begun privately talking” about blocking it. Regardless, the Schrader position—along with the Bowman position—exemplifies the big tent that holds the narrow majority. For Yarmuth’s budget committee, not to mention the entire Democratic caucus, the wide spectrum of opinion makes trying to get the House to pass its own budget resolution, and stake out its own position, not worth the hassle. (Notably, Yarmuth said both the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the moderate Blue Dog Coalition agreed to let the Senate take the lead on the budget resolution.)

It’s not quite a given that the House will rubber stamp what the Senate sends over. But in all likelihood, the Senate toplines will be limited by its moderate faction, and that will indicate how far the Senate is able to go. If House Democrats can’t agree among themselves on any number, let alone a higher number, the only thing that will get all Democrats on the same page is acceptance of the Senate’s limitations. As deputy House whip Dale Kildee told Roll Call, “We really need to get a stronger signal from [the Senate] before we get too far ahead of ourselves and not be able to actually deliver something.”

Yarmuth spoke to The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent and described the House’s punt on the budget resolution as a way to ensure party unity across both chambers in regard to sequencing. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is pressuring moderate Democrats to reject Pelosi’s insistence that the larger reconciliation bill pass the Senate first before the House votes on the smaller bipartisan agreement. But Yarmuth told Sargent that there is “widespread skepticism” among House Democrats that a reconciliation bill would pass at all if the bipartisan bill passed first, so any push by Senate moderates to de-link the two bills risks dividing the party. By securing party consensus for the toplines in the budget resolution, in Sargent’s words, “this locks the left and centrist wings into a framework of mutual need.”

That makes sense, but again, if the House can’t agree upon its own number, the size of this framework of mutual need is likely to be largely determined by the Senate’s centrist wing.

Once left and centrist Democrats lock arms, does the sequencing of the two bills even matter? We—maybe, kinda, sorta—have an indication from Pelosi that it doesn’t.

After Pelosi declared that House passage of the bipartisan bill is conditional on Senate passage of the reconciliation bill, on June 26th, President Joe Biden walked back a similar statement on his own. Instead of insisting he would only sign both bills in “tandem,” he stressed he wasn’t making any veto threat in the event the bipartisan bill was sent to him first. Four days later, Pelosi was asked at a press conference, “is it still your position that you will not vote on a bipartisan package or a reconciliation package until the Senate does it first?”

Pelosi’s response was curious: “that particular version, as it is, is something that we would take up once we see what the budget parameters are of the budget bill that the Senate will pass.”

When I saw that statement, I reacted on Twitter, “Whoa whoa whoa, that sounds like … Pelosi would take up the bipartisan deal after the Senate passes the budget *resolution* (which will have the budgetary toplines but doesn’t go to the president), not the final budget *reconciliation* bill that actually becomes law.”

Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff Drew Hammill tweeted a reply to me, intending to clarify her remark:

By ‘budget bill,’ Speaker means ‘reconciliation bill’ not budget resolution. As she began this response ‘The statement that I made, yes that is the statement I stand by.’ No change in position here. Full stop.”

But the question is not what Pelosi meant by “budget bill,” but what she meant by “budget parameters.” Because that will be determined by the budget resolution weeks before any budget reconciliation bill. (At the press conference, a reporter asked, “Did you mean the budget resolution, Madam Speaker?” but Pelosi ignored the question.)

Pelosi may be trying to keep her options open. Today, many House Democrats appear to lack the trust in their Senate counterparts to pass a reconciliation bill after the bipartisan bill. But once a resolution passes, and a framework of mutual need established, perhaps that trust will materialize.

Furthermore, Pelosi has several vulnerable House members in reddish districts who would like to pocket a bipartisan win before the midterms, and Pelosi has a history of tending to her most vulnerable members. At this point, we don’t know when any of these bills will have completed legislative language and be ready for a floor vote. But Politico notes that moderates in Congress have been “particularly vocal in nudging White House officials to tee up a vote on the bipartisan deal as soon as it’s ready rather than waiting for the bigger partisan bill to go alongside it.” If the bipartisan bill is ready to go first, Pelosi may not want to wait. Back in 2009, Pelosi shared her legislative philosophy: “I call Washington ‘the city of the perishable.’ You get the votes, and you take the vote. Because you never know what can happen.”

Something else happened in 2009 that may be relevant to today: Pelosi made a bold demand and then climbed down from it when the political reality interfered. As the fight for health care reform raged, Pelosi declared in September 2009, “A bill without a strong public option will not pass the House.” By March 2010, when the Senate refused to put any public option provision in its health care bill, Pelosi switched gears, acknowledged public option “isn’t in there because they don’t have the votes” and leaned on her caucus to accept political reality, which they did.

2021 is not like 2009 in several ways. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is bolder. The moderate faction in Congress is smaller. The Democratic majorities are narrower. But it is striking that in 2009 Pelosi was compelled to make a policy demand. Whereas in 2021, she is making a procedural demand because her caucus does not have a consensus on what the policy demand should be.

Of course, the possibility remains that the Senate toplines are too low to satisfy a faction of House progressives, prompting them to withhold their votes on the budget resolution in an attempt to regain leverage. But that carries the risk of dragging out the reconciliation process, or even blowing it up altogether, leaving the smaller bipartisan bill the only game in town.

The way for progressive and moderate Democratic to get the maximum amount of infrastructure spending possible in a narrowly divided Congress is through cooperation and trust. And that requires knowing your own strength and accepting political constraints. For the left and center factions of the House to agree on letting the Senate set the pace on the budgetary toplines is a positive sign. Now they just need to accept what the Senate produces.

As Yarmuth recently told Politico, “Nancy always says unity is our strength. In this case, unity is our only chance.”

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"