House Democrats Can Blow Up Biden’s Agenda, Too

Kurt Schrader, Blue Dog rebel. Photo: Sarah Silbiger-Pool/Shutterstock

All eyes have been riveted this year on Senate Democrats and their fragile hold on the upper chamber. If Joe Manchin so much as coughs, dozens of analyses emerge from Beltway media outlets and fearful progressives warn of imminent betrayal. Thursday’s announcement of a bipartisan infrastructure deal triggered a particularly fraught round of speculation as the whole world tried to figure out the relationship between the deal and a planned subsequent budget resolution and reconciliation bill whose fate may depend on Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and other potential rogue Democrats.

It is often forgotten, however, that House Democrats have their own issues. No, Republicans cannot filibuster House bills. But it still takes a majority vote to get legislation through the House, and lest we forget, the Democratic margin in that chamber shrank dramatically in 2020 and has periodically been reduced even more by vacancies. At the moment, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a four-vote margin of control. And as she prepares to deal with budget legislation that may carry the weight of most of Joe Biden’s agenda, the Speaker has some of the same problems as her Senate counterpart Chuck Schumer, as Roll Call explains:

Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, a member of the fiscally conscious Blue Dog Coalition, said in an interview that he’s planning to vote against a budget resolution that would include reconciliation instructions for trillions of dollars in additional spending. Another moderate House Democrat, who requested anonymity to speak freely about a position that would upset party leaders, said the same. 

With those two expected “no” votes, Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t have much more room to maneuver on that first step toward passing a big spending bill, let alone the reconciliation legislation itself that would contain all the details.

There is virtually no chance of Republican crossover votes for a budget resolution or a later budget-reconciliation bill aimed at implementing Biden’s American Jobs Act and American Families Act, along with infrastructure spending if the Senate bipartisan deal falls apart, which seems likelier than not. So in theory, as few as five centrist House Democrats could hold trillions of dollars in spending and an entire party’s hopes and dreams hostage. There are, moreover, multiple pressure points, including separate votes on the budget resolution (probably in July), a reconciliation bill (likely in September), some sort of omnibus appropriations bill or stopgap funding bill (also in September), and, at some point, legislation to deal with a debt-limit breach. Every concession made to centrists, of course, will generate resentment among the more numerous House progressives. Already Pelosi has taken her own hostage, refusing to move any bipartisan infrastructure deal unless she’s sure subsequent budget measures are sure to pass both Houses, as CNN reported:

“There ain’t gonna be no bipartisan bill, unless we have a reconciliation bill,” she said. “As I said, there won’t be an infrastructure bill, unless we have a reconciliation bill. Plain and simple.” 

In any game of musical chairs between Pelosi and small groups of rebellious Democratic members, my money’s on the Speaker, one of the most effective legislative leaders in living memory. But she has a pretty important stake in the success of people like Schrader, who hold marginal seats essential to the tough task of hanging onto the House in 2022. It may take all of Pelosi’s skill to get through 2021 without a major mishap.

House Democrats Can Blow Up Biden’s Agenda, Too