Tensions flare in Capitol as moderate Democrats hold up Biden budget plan

Compromising with moderates after confrontation failed, House Democratic leaders were set to try again on Tuesday to muscle Joe Biden’s multitrillion-dollar budget blueprint past a standoff that halted proceedings and risked upending their domestic infrastructure agenda.

Tensions flared overnight as a band of moderates threatened to withhold their votes for the $3.5tn plan. They were demanding the House first approve a nearly $1tn bipartisan package of road, power grid, broadband and other public works projects that has passed the Senate.

Early on Tuesday, House leaders surveyed support for a potential compromise. It would set a 27 September date to consider the bipartisan package, giving moderates the assurance they want, according to a Democratic leadership aide who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The potential compromise was an attempt to meet the concerns of moderates while staying in line with Nancy Pelosi’s insistence that the two bills move together. The House speaker has set a goal of passing both by 1 October.

House Democrats huddled privately. Votes were expected on Tuesday afternoon.

“We’re legislating,” Pelosi told reporters on Monday night.

The new strategy came after a turbulent late night at the Capitol and signaled the power even a handful of voices can have in setting policy and agenda in a narrowly divided chamber where Pelosi has few votes to spare. What was supposed to be a quick session as lawmakers returned to work for a few days in August devolved into a dramatic display of differences between the moderates and progressive lawmakers over the best way to tackle Biden’s big rebuilding agenda.

Pelosi implored Democrats during a private meeting on Monday not to miss a chance to deliver on the promises Biden and the party have made to Americans.

“Right now, we have an opportunity to pass something so substantial for our country, so transformative we haven’t seen anything like it,” Pelosi said, according to a person who requested anonymity.

With Republicans fully opposed to the president’s big plans, Democratic leaders were trying to engineer a way between the party’s moderate and progressive wings.

The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, said on Tuesday on Fox News he was rooting for the moderates.

“I wish the moderates in the House success,” McConnell said.

The GOP leader supported the nearly $1tn bill that passed the Senate earlier this month, but is planning to lead Senate Republicans in lockstep against Biden’s infrastructure agenda.

“I’m pulling for them,” he added. “We’re doing our part.”

Despite hours of negotiations at the Capitol, the House chamber came to a standstill and plans were thrown into flux late on Monday as leaders and lawmakers sought to broker an agreement. Shortly after midnight, leaders announced no further votes would be taken until Tuesday’s session.

Pelosi sought to sidestep the issue by persuading lawmakers to take a procedural vote to simply start the process and save the policy fight for the months ahead, when they will be crafting and debating details within the full $3.5tn budget proposal. But it soon became clear moderates were not on board and a series of private sessions were convened for further discussion, including in Pelosi’s office. At one point, bags of takeout food were delivered.

Nine moderate Democrats signed onto a letter late last week raising their objections to pushing ahead with Biden’s broader infrastructure proposal without first considering the smaller public works plan that passed the Senate. Other moderates raised similar concerns in recent days.

“I’m bewildered by my party’s misguided strategy to make passage of the popular, already-written, bipartisan infrastructure bill contingent upon passage of the contentious, yet-to-be-written, partisan reconciliation bill,” wrote Stephanie Murphy from Florida, a leader of the centrist Blue Dog caucus, in the Orlando Sentinel.

With most of Biden’s domestic agenda at stake, it’s unimaginable that Pelosi would allow defeat. The budget package is stocked with priorities like childcare, paid family leave and a Medicare expansion that are hard-fought party goals.

The budget resolution will set the stage for further legislation and committees are at work drafting how that money would be spent on the social safety net, environment and other programs over the next decade.

The budget measure is at the heart of Biden’s “Build Back Better” vision and is progressives’ top priority, largely financed with tax increases on the rich and big business. Progressives signaled early on they wanted the budget priorities before the smaller package.

But the moderates insist Congress quickly send the smaller, bipartisan infrastructure measure to Biden so he can sign it before the political winds shift. That would nail down a victory they could point to in their reelection campaigns next year.

“The House can’t afford to wait months or do anything to risk passing” the infrastructure bill, said Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, a moderate leader, late last week.

On Monday the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, underscored Biden’s support for Pelosi, describing “healthy debate” within the party as “a high-class problem to have”.

Progressives criticized their centrist colleagues, warning they are jamming Biden’s plans. Cori Bush of Missouri said in a statement: “We are not here to play politics with people’s lives – we are here to pass transformative policies.”

Republicans say the $3.5tn budget fails to address “the crisis that American families are facing” and would lead to higher inflation and deficits.