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Here Are 5 Hurdles That Democrats Face Now For Their $3.5 Trillion Budget

Moderate Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is already raising concerns about the size of the Democrats' $3.5 trillion budget resolution, indicating he may want to rethink what type of package is needed as the economy deals with inflation.
Kevin Dietsch
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Moderate Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is already raising concerns about the size of the Democrats' $3.5 trillion budget resolution, indicating he may want to rethink what type of package is needed as the economy deals with inflation.

Updated August 12, 2021 at 1:15 PM ET

The Senate struggled for months to get agreement and ultimately a bipartisan vote to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure package.

Now Democrats in Congress are moving on to something potentially even harder: staying united on a $3.5 trillion budget that would represent the most ambitious remaking of the social safety net since the New Deal. Without Republican support they have limited time and room for error to get the plan to the president's desk.

All 50 Senate Democrats stayed together to approve the budget resolution in a party line vote early Wednesday, 50-49, with one GOP senator absent.

The proposal — which would expand health care coverage, fund universal pre-K and free community college, create ambitious federal programs to combat climate change and grant a path to citizenship for qualified immigrants, among other provisions — is likely to be the last major domestic legislative effort for President Biden before Washington, D.C., shifts into political mode full time for the 2022 midterm elections.

Narrow margins in both chambers and significant philosophical divisions inside the Democratic Party mean the two top leaders, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, face perhaps the most difficult task in their careers.

They are also dealing with the backdrop of the country reeling from the delta variant of the coronavirus, which has set back efforts to get back to normal.

Here's a deeper look at five hurdles on the path ahead:

1. The process itself is tricky

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the Democrats' budget a "reckless taxing and spending spree" and made it clear the GOP will oppose it at every turn. So Democrats are using a process known as reconciliation to get around a filibuster.

Later this month, the House is expected to adopt the language of the budget resolution that the Senate drafted, to keep the process moving. And then the next step, which the Senate controls, is for various key committees to write detailed instructions.

The resolution passed this week only gives the committees topline numbers. For example, the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions received $726 billion for universal pre-K, free community college, child care programs and more. But the panel actually writes legislative text for these federal programs.

Lawmakers will want to put their stamp on those, and the push and pull from the left and center of the party could mean significant debates about whether they can afford to make programs like the child tax credit permanent, or sunset them due to fiscal constraints.

The reconciliation process has rules about what kinds of policies are allowed. It can include items that have a demonstrable impact on the federal budget, and there's a particular question about whether the immigration proposals will make the cut.

Schumer has given the committees a Sept. 15 deadline to draft the package.

Both parties have used reconciliation to pass major legislation before. For instance, earlier this year Democrats employed it for a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, and in 2017 Republicans tried to use it for health care and failed, but used it for enacting massive tax cuts.

2. A two-track approach is a difficult legislative feat

The same day the bipartisan group of senators announced its deal on the infrastructure package, Pelosi made a pledge designed to calm down House lawmakers who felt left out of the process. Liberals in particular criticized the deal as too small, and said it wouldn't do enough to help poor and marginalized communities.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged that the infrastructure bill and the broader budget plan will move together.
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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged that the infrastructure bill and the broader budget plan will move together.

The speaker vowed that both that bill and the broader budget plan had to move in tandem. She has said repeatedly that she would not schedule a House vote on the infrastructure measure until the Senate sent the House a budget plan that includes "human infrastructure" — like child care, elder care and expanded health coverage.

The argument is that taken together, these two bills would fix the nation's crumbling infrastructure but also provide the support many Americans need to stay employed as they balance raising families and caring for aging relatives.

But the process to get all 50 Senate Democrats to agree on a budget package could take weeks, if not months, and the group behind the bipartisan infrastructure bill is pressing Pelosi to relent and schedule a House vote soon.

The tiny margin the speaker has in the House means she can't afford to lose a significant bloc of progressives, who insist they won't back the $1 trillion measure alone. But if Senate Democrats fail to get a deal on the broader bill, the party could risk going into a midterm election — which historically favors the party out of power — with little to show for months of legislative efforts.

Biden has left it to Pelosi, a skilled legislator who muscled the Affordable Care Act through, to manage this process too. But if the economy takes a turn the president may feel pressure to get the House to move on the bipartisan bill.

3. Moderates raise issues with the $3.5T price tag

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a centrist who has long expressed reservations about the size of the budget plan, voted to advance it Wednesday, but hours later released a statement making it clear his vote was not locked in for the final package.

"Given the current state of the economic recovery, it is simply irresponsible to continue spending at levels more suited to respond to a Great Depression or Great Recession — not an economy that is on the verge of overheating," Manchin said. He added, "I firmly believe that continuing to spend at irresponsible levels puts at risk our nation's ability to respond to the unforeseen crises our country could face."

And he's not the only centrist who has bristled at another massive federal spending bill. Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema voted to start the process, but has said she has issues with the price tag.

Moderates in the House are also signaling that they want to put the brakes on pushing though a multitrillion-dollar bill. New Jersey Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who is co-chair of a group promoting bipartisan proposals in the House, said on MSNBC Wednesday he's concerned about the budget's size and scope, saying about the $3.5 trillion figure, "I am concerned that that number is very aggressive."

4. House progressives insist the plan keep its scope

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., is a leading progressive who waved off those worrying about the size of the proposal.

"If we're serious about a just, equitable and robust recovery, it means making these sorts of bold investments and a sweeping package that meets the moment," Pressley said on NPR's All Things Considered on Tuesday.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., is in favor of "bold investments and a sweeping package that meets the moment."
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Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., is in favor of "bold investments and a sweeping package that meets the moment."

While Gottheimer pressed for a vote as soon as possible on the infrastructure bill, Pressley pointed back to the promise Pelosi made to her members. "I expect that we will honor the original terms of the deal," she told NPR.

Progressives have pushed five tenets that they insist need to be addressed in the reconciliation package — climate change, housing, child care and paid family leave, expanding Medicare and significant immigration reforms.

Some progressives are also interested in trying to include voting rights provisions. It's unclear how the Senate parliamentarian would rule on various measures, but Schumer and Pelosi may decide to include them to show both progressives in Congress and outside groups that they are trying to test the limits of the reconciliation process.

Another House progressive, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., downplayed any tensions between the liberals and moderates in the House, telling NPR about the debate, "I just don't want people to walk away, hearing this conversation, thinking we are divided as a caucus in delivering our priorities." She emphasized on Thursday, "We might be divided on ways that we might achieve our priorities, but we are united in delivering that priority and we are going to continue to find common ground and work through our differences. Because at the end of the day, our constituents gave us this opportunity to deliver for them, and we must deliver on their behalf."

5. The COVID surge and inflation fears could shift political dynamics

The rise of the delta variant has exploded case numbers in the U.S. and increased concerns about what the pandemic's latest turn will do to the robust economic recovery. In recent days Biden's approval numbers have been sagging some.

At the same time, inflation is surging, and while a lot of workers are getting raises, their buying power is diminished. Democrats are beginning to openly worry that if these trends continue, they will bear the brunt of the blame in the 2022 midterms.

Republicans sense an opening and are already targeting vulnerable Democrats who are heading home to meet with voters over the August summer recess.

The American Action Network, a conservative group that has ties to House GOP leaders' political arm, announced Wednesday that it is spending more than $5 million in ads in 39 congressional districts, focused on the $3.5 trillion spending package. One ad mentions a "hidden tax on the working class."

"Inflation is already stretching families' paychecks thinner than ever, and now Nancy Pelosi and her allies are running to take even more from their wallets with enormous tax increases and trillions for their far-left political priorities," AAN President Dan Conston said in a written statement about the effort.

Biden acknowledged the spike in prices, which on Wednesday he attributed to supply chain issues. White House officials believe inflation is transitory, and Biden said he would "keep a careful eye on inflation each month" and rely on the Federal Reserve to take any action.

The assurances may not be enough for swing-state Democrats who will field questions about higher gas prices and costs for school supplies over the next few weeks.

Schumer stressed that economists say the way to address concerns about the budget's impact on the economy is to pay for the proposal — and he reiterated Democrats will fund their plan by closing tax loopholes and insisting that corporations and the wealthiest Americans pick up the tab.

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Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.