Tensions are reaching a boiling point for Democrats as intense divisions between liberals and moderates threaten to derail key pillars of President Joe Biden’s agenda and factions within the party increasingly cast blame on one another.
The Biden agenda has entered a pivotal stage on Capitol Hill as House Democrats run up against a looming September 27 deadline to vote on a $1 trillion Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill. Progressives have vowed not to vote in favor of the bipartisan bill unless a far larger economic package with a price tag of up to $3.5 trillion moves in tandem. But that package has become bogged down over disputes among Democrats over the cost as well as policy details, leaving both priorities in jeopardy.
Progressive Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York told CNN on Monday that she is a “no” on the $1 trillion infrastructure package on September 27 if the House and Senate have not approved the larger, Democratic-only economic package by then. But there’s virtually no chance the larger bill — which progressives want pegged at $3.5 trillion — can pass both chambers by next Monday given the divisions within the party and constraints about moving through the legislative process quickly.
Ocasio-Cortez did not hold back in her criticism of moderates within her own party, saying, “You have a very small destructive group of members who want to hold the entire country’s agenda hostage for an arbitrary date. And this is not, it’s not representative of the agenda of the caucus, it’s not representative of the agenda of the President, and we need to stay focused on the original, on the original process that allowed us to move forward in the first place.”
The congresswoman added: “And so, you know, I would hope that we figure out something in that time. But once again, I’m more than happy to vote for the infrastructure bill, if we’re able to figure out a way to bring it up in, in a concurrent fashion with reconciliation.”
Asked about the prediction by moderates that the liberals are bluffing, she said: “Well, I’m happy to show my cards.”
The challenge facing congressional Democratic leaders all along has been whether they can hold together the competing ideological factions within their party to pass both the bipartisan bill and the far more sweeping legislation that Democrats hope to pass on a party line vote using a process known as reconciliation to sidestep the Senate filibuster. The larger package is set to address a wide range of issues from health care to the climate crisis.
To make that strategy work, leadership has been trying to move both priorities in tandem, a goal that looks ever more difficult as major sticking points remain and have yet to be resolved.
“I would say we’re at a critical moment. This week is critical,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin told reporters on Monday. “This is the key week.”
At the same time, key moderates who are resistant to passing the $3.5 trillion passage that liberals want to see enacted are showing no signs of backing down.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, an influential moderate who has said he does not support a $3.5 trillion price tag, made clear in an interview with CNN on Monday that he wants Democratic leaders to slow things down dramatically.
“You know what I said? I said let’s wait and see whatever we need. We need to have a good idea. The main thing is inflation, if it’s transitory or not, you have a better idea, you know, once we get into it a little bit longer, but right now inflation is still high, and now we understand that natural gas prices are higher than they’ve ever been, in West Virginia, too, and the people who end up paying the highest is the ones that can’t afford it. So we got to worry about all these things,” he said.
The West Virginian has floated a potential topline number for the larger package of between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion. Manchin again declined to say on Monday whether he’d be willing to go over $2 trillion in a total price tag.
Manchin said that his meeting with President Joe Biden last week was “very good,” but wouldn’t say if they were close to a deal. “We’re just still working through everything.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a prominent liberal, acknowledged divisions within the party but still struck an optimistic note.
“Not everybody is on the same page yet, but I think we’re all heading in the same direction,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.
Asked about threats from House progressives to vote against the bipartisan bill without the larger package, Warren said, “We’re not there yet.”
Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, who could be facing a competitive reelection next year, sidestepped questions about a potential $3.5 trillion price tag and Manchin’s call for a pause.
“People are talking to me about a number of really important priorities that are critical to the overall economy. So that’s what our focus should be,” she said when asked about her colleague’s concerns and whether she agrees there should be a pause in the effort to pass the sweeping package.
Hassan added that “it’s all about the details” when asked about proposed tax increases that could be used to pay for the plan, a hot-button issue that Republicans have been quick to attack Democrats over and one of the potential sticking points in the way of uniting Democrats in support of the package.
Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who also represents New Hampshire, indicated that she too needs to see more details about the plan, which is slated to address a wide range of issues including child care and education.
Asked what her concerns are with the package, she said, “The details of what’s in it and structuring it in a way that makes it challenging for states like New Hampshire to provide a state match. … If it is structured in a way that prevents us from participating, then it’s going to be very difficult. So I just want to know some of those details.”
This story has been updated.
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