Why Pelosi and Moderate Democrats Are in a Standoff Over Biden’s Agenda

Dealing with the moderate revolt will take all of Nancy Pelosi’s considerable skills. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

As the dog days of August drag on, the U.S. Senate is in recess, while the U.S. House is on the edge of a series of fraught votes on two giant items the Senate has already passed: the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a Fiscal Year 2022 budget resolution (which in turn authorizes a huge FY 2022 budget reconciliation bill). It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that these two measures represent Joe Biden’s entire agenda for 2021. So the deadlock/staredown/game of chicken (choose your term) between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and nine “moderate” Democratic rebels over the order in which the chamber takes up these priorities is important to understand. Here’s a guide to all the drama in the House.

Why doesn’t the House just pass the bills, like the Senate did?

The Senate passed the infrastructure bill and the budget resolution in back-to-back votes on August 10, the first by a 69-30 margin with 19 Republicans onboard, and the second on a strict 50-49 party-line vote. But everyone involved understood, because Nancy Pelosi had been saying it for weeks, that the House would not bring up the infrastructure bill for a vote until the Senate passed the actual reconciliation bill the budget resolution set up.

The reason for her position was simple enough: With Democrats having zero margin for error in the Senate and just a three-vote majority in the House, there was a serious risk some “centrists” might abandon the party on the partisan budget resolution and reconciliation bill, or force concessions on the size and shape of the reconciliation bill that could in turn create a revolt among Democratic progressives in and beyond the House. Holding the infrastructure bill — which “moderates” helped negotiate and now badly want to see reach Biden’s desk — in abeyance until the bigger, more significant budget votes are safely past is Politics 101 for Pelosi. She is basically executing the “linkage” strategy Biden was forced to abandon (publicly, at least) during the infrastructure negotiations in order to keep the necessary number of Republicans onboard.

So until the “moderate revolt,” Pelosi’s expectation was that the House would briskly pass a budget resolution just like the Senate’s (authorizing but not guaranteeing up to $3.5 trillion in spending and revenues), then break for a recess while House and Senate committees put together the reconciliation bill. Once all the deals were cut and the reconciliation bill was safely enacted, only then would she bring up the Senate-passed infrastructure deal. That might not be until October or November, given all the controversies and potential House-Senate differences over the vast number of details in the reconciliation bill, and the need to address more time-sensitive matters like fiscal-year-end appropriations and a debt limit increase. In he meantime, infrastructure-craving moderates in both Houses would be tightly yoked to the party line and given limited concessions at best.

This state of affairs is what the moderates are trying to avoid via demanding a reversal of Pelosi’s timetable: infrastructure first, then a budget resolution, and only then (if ever), the reconciliation bill.

Who are the moderate rebels and what do they really want?

Nine House Democrats publicly made demands, first via a letter to Pelosi on August 12, and then in a Washington Post op-ed on August 22. Their position was joined by Stephanie Murphy of Florida in an August 23 op-ed as negotiations with Pelosi were fully underway. Nine of of the ten (all but Texas’s Filemon Vela) are members of the House Blue Dog Coalition, that long-standing caucus of Democratic centrists which has often disagreed with the party leadership on fiscal policy (though it’s worth noting that 10 other Blue Dogs have not joined the dissenters). Four (Ed Case of Hawaii, Henry Cuellar of Texas, Kurt Schrader of Oregon, and Jim Costa of California) are veteran troublemakers for Pelosi. Five are also from competitive districts (Murphy, Carolyn Bordeaux of Georgia, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Jared Golden of Maine, and Vicente Gonzalez of Texas). Bordeaux may be the target of a Republican gerrymandering effort.

Their motives and goals could well be mixed. The more electorally vulnerable members likely want to signal their commitment to bipartisanship to swing voters and/or their willingness and ability to thwart “socialist” progressive objectives. A few may be unwinnable on any reconciliation bill progressives could support. As my colleague Jonathan Chait recently pointed out, a couple of the rebels appear to be signaling that their cooperation with Pelosi could be secured by concessions on the reconciliation bill that could complicate its passage significantly (e.g., Gottheimer wants restoration of a state and local tax write-off killed in the 2017 Trump tax cut bill, and Costa wants to protect large-farm owners from estate-tax exposure). Undoubtedly other Democrats have been probing the moderate ranks for weaknesses, but so far they aren’t bending.

What is Pelosi doing to resolve the “staredown”?

The Speaker’s major conciliatory offer to the moderate rebels has been a combined “rule” (the measure stipulating when and how any bill will be debated and voted upon on the House floor) for how the House will proceed on both the budget resolution and the infrastructure bill, which she suggests represents a guarantee that she won’t just junk the bipartisan measure once she gets what she wants. As the recent Post op-ed by the moderates indicates, that hasn’t moved any of the rebels.

Pelosi made another maneuver aimed at undermining the resolve of the rebels. The “rule” expected to come to the House floor on Tuesday, August 24 will also include a scheduled vote on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a huge Democratic priority (albeit one blocked by Senate Republicans from any real chance of enactment) that the moderates may be loath to discourage in any way. But during a tense day and night of negotiations on August 23, Pelosi also indicated (and the Rules Committee adopted) a provision “deeming” passage of the “rule” as passage of the budget resolution itself, collapsing what had been two votes into one. She also took steps to guarantee a date before October 1 for House action on the infrastructure bill.

How is the “game of chicken” likely to end?

If at all possible, Pelosi will try to get the dissenters down to the magic number of three, keeping the original timetable in place even as bicameral negotiations over the reconciliation bill continue. The White House could get involved as well with both carrots and sticks; some of the most politically vulnerable rebels may be tempted to go along via promises of extra campaign help or even post-congressional appointments if they lose next year. And both congressional Democratic leaders and the White House will be in touch with progressives to secure agreement on specific concessions offered to moderates (perhaps including the tax goodies Gottheimer and Costa want). That’s probably already underway in quiet talks designed to bring Senate centrists Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema onboard when the reconciliation bill is crafted.

Here’s the state of play as of the morning of August 24 according to Punchbowl News, after Pelosi delayed a vote on the rule until this afternoon:

[The rebels] wanted a vote on the Senate infrastructure bill now, before the budget resolution, and they aren’t going to get that. There’s no amount of spin that can paper that over. They folded. If the moderates get a date certain for a vote on infrastructure in September or by Oct. 1, is that something? Sure – we guess! It would achieve one goal: ensuring that the Senate infrastructure bill doesn’t get delayed for months. But what if progressives don’t like how the larger reconciliation talks are going by the time the Senate infrastructure bill comes to the floor? Then the infrastructure bill will be in serious jeopardy in the House. Plus, this date-certain play by the mods scrambles Republicans’ considerations. Upwards of a dozen GOP lawmakers were considering voting for infrastructure if it came up this month. The later it gets, the more tenuous that support becomes.

All in all, the sensible approach for all involved is a comprehensive deal that covers all bases and avoids the disaster of the infrastructure and reconciliation bill both failing, which would be a huge victory for Republicans. But time is running short for legislative high jinks, and it will take all of Pelosi’s great skills to get through the week unscathed. At risk is not only Biden’s legislative agenda, but perhaps the success or failure of his presidency. There is a reason Jonathan Chait calls the rebels the “Suicide Squad.” The stakes for Democrats are that high.

This post has been updated.

Why Pelosi and Moderates Are Battling Over Biden’s Agenda