Adam S. Olsen- Washington, D.C.
September 30, 2021

Democrats face a consequential Thursday on Capitol Hill as they scramble to avert a government shutdown at midnight and salvage two crucial pieces of President Biden’s domestic agenda imperiled by deep internal divisions.

The Senate just passed the continuing resolution 65 to 35 on the eve of the new fiscal year, to extend government funding until December 3rd, sending the package to the House and ultimately to President Joe Biden’s desk for signature with just hours to spare.  Stripped of Republican-opposed language suspending the debt ceiling, the stopgap funding bill was expected to pass both chambers with bipartisan support.  The series of Senate votes on the spending package will also provide emergency aid to assist Afghan refugees and natural disaster recovery efforts across the country as well as Israel’s Irone Dome missile defense system.

However, the planned vote today in the House on the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill is in doubt amid an intraparty stalemate. Liberal Democrats have threatened to bring down the infrastructure bill unless Congress first acts on a much larger, $3.5 trillion social policy package that includes a vast climate change initiative, expansions of health care, public education, paid leave and child care programs and an array of tax increases.  Both are major priorities for President Biden, who invested ample political capital in the infrastructure compromise and has staked his presidency on enactment of a transformational social policy package.  Centrists have resisted the $3.5 trillion plan, and given Democrats’ slim margins of control in both chambers, there is currently no clear path for passing it.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) met with President Biden at the White House Wednesday afternoon and Speaker Pelosi afterward affirmed her plan to bring to the House floor on Thursday the $550 billion infrastructure bill that Biden negotiated earlier this year and which now has become a focal point of tension between the two wings of the party. Despite repeated entreaties from Mr. Biden and top White House officials, two crucial Democratic holdouts — Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — have refused to specify their bottom line in negotiations, although it is rumored that Senator Manchin’s top-line spending number for the budget reconciliation package is $1.5 trillion, far below the $3.5 trillion spending goal set by the budget resolution that he and every other Senate Democrat voted for last month.. White House officials had hoped to extract a firm public commitment from them this week to eventually vote for the social policy measure, but their efforts have so far proved unsuccessful.  Instead, Mr. Manchin doubled down on his opposition to the $3.5 trillion package in its current form, issuing a blistering statement late Wednesday in which he criticized the ambitions of the bill as the “definition of fiscal insanity.” He did not rule out supporting a slimmed-down version, suggesting he would be willing to reverse some elements of Republicans’ 2017 tax law and expand some social programs — but only if they were subject to income thresholds to ensure federal aid only went to those most in need.  This morning, Speaker Pelosi said that the House was “proceeding in a very positive way” toward voting on the infrastructure bill later in the day as planned, despite the uncertainties around whether it could pass. “We’re on a path to win the vote. I don’t want to even consider any options other than that,” she said.

House Democrats also passed a bill on Wednesday to raise the debt ceiling, but that’s expected to hit a similar Senate Republican death. Though a band of House moderates had signaled unease over taking a vote that was guaranteed to go nowhere in the Senate, Speaker Pelosi leaned on members during a closed-door meeting and publicly urged them to not be guided by Senate Republicans’ stance.  Reps. Kurt Schrader (D-Oregon) and Jared Golden (D-Maine) bucked party lines on Wednesday afternoon when they joined Republicans in voting ‘no’ on legislation and on the opposite side of the aisle, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Illinois.) was the only Republican to vote to send the measure to the Senate.  If the Senate does not pass the House bill, Democrats may have no choice but to try to use the reconciliation process to suspend the debt ceiling.  But there’s no guarantee that Democrats could line up the sweeping spending bill they are trying to use the budget process for in time to insert the debt ceiling amid high-profile Democratic infighting. Democrats are also worried reopening the budget process would be too lengthy, and procedurally murky, to bank on for something as significant as the debt ceiling given the October 18th deadline

Adam S. Olsen, Washington, D.C.