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Budget vote highlights Democrats’ divisions on spending, infrastructure

Though every Democrat in the House eventually ended up voting for the budget resolution, the episode highlighted schisms in the party — nationally and among Minnesota’s delegation — that could threaten Biden’s agenda. 

Moderates’ complaints to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had less to do with actual policies in each bill than with the politics involved in passing them.
Moderates’ complaints to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had less to do with actual policies in each bill than with the politics involved in passing them.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on a resolution deemed so important that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called members back to the Hill in the middle of their summer recess. 

In a 220-212 vote along party lines, Democrats narrowly approved a budget resolution that provides the framework for a $3.5 trillion spending deal. 

The budget bill has been hailed by progressives as an essential counterpart to the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill recently passed by the U.S. Senate, and is seen as a clever workaround to include progressive priorities in a deal that could make it through both houses of Congress. Through a process called reconciliation, the bill would only require a simple majority to advance through the Senate, rather than the 60 votes needed for most legislation.

And yet the days leading up to the vote were filled with Democratic drama. Progressives said they would not vote on the infrastructure bill without first completing the reconciliation process. Then, nine moderate House Democrats wrote a letter to Pelosi saying they would not consider voting for a budget resolution until the infrastructure package is signed into law. 

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Though every Democrat in the House eventually ended up voting for the budget resolution, the episode highlighted divisions in the party — nationally and among Minnesota’s delegation — that could still threaten to tank the chances of passing the infrastructure package, the spending deal, or both.   

A Democratic split

Moderates’ complaints to Pelosi had less to do with actual policies in each bill than with the politics involved in passing them, arguing that Congress could not afford “months of unnecessary delays and risk squandering this once-in-a-century, bipartisan infrastructure package.” 

The lawmakers wanted to get infrastructure projects started as soon as possible without giving in to progressives’ demands, worrying that the budget reconciliation is going to take a long time (beyond lengthy negotiations, legislative text still needs to be drafted), and be a nonstarter in the Senate, where some moderates have already said that $3.5 trillion is too high a price tag. 

Moderates also have the 2022 elections to think about. Many of those who signed the letter represent swing districts, and view a win on infrastructure as a solid, job-creating accomplishment to gain approval from right-leaning constituents.

For their part, progressives have long seen the spending bill as the best way to address priorities like climate change and federal funding for child care, and have been threatening for months to tank a vote on the infrastructure bill if it wasn’t paired with the reconciliation package.

“While the bipartisan infrastructure bill will provide key investments, it is not enough to meet the moment,” Fifth District Rep. Ilhan Omar, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said earlier this month. “We, as a nation, have a moral responsibility to make sure everyone has their basic needs like food, housing and health care met. Our communities need us to deliver, which is why the reconciliation package is crucial to move alongside the infrastructure bill.”

The deal brokered by Pelosi provided a ceasefire — if only briefly — between House moderates and progressives. For the former, the agreement includes a commitment to vote on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill by Sept. 27. For the latter, it includes a rule that allows Democrats to immediately begin work on the $3.5 trillion budget.

Additionally, the rule cleared the way for the House to pass legislation restoring the portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required localities with histories of voter suppression to get a federal clearance before making changes to election laws.

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Though Democrats avoided disaster, nobody seemed particularly excited by the compromise deal. 

Third District Rep. Dean Phillips, in a step away from his reliably middle-ground policy stances, chose to distance himself from the group of defecting moderates. He released a statement before the vote began indicating he would support the budget resolution and saying his main concern was a targeted relief package for small businesses, “either as part of the reconciliation process or concurrent with it.”

“While I am among many advocating for the bipartisan infrastructure bill to be brought to the floor independent of reconciliation, my support for small businesses takes precedence,” Phillips said.

Although Second District Rep. Angie Craig has publicly stated that she does not believe the infrastructure package should be coupled with the reconciliation bill, she also didn’t join with the group of nine moderates threatening to withhold their votes on the budget resolution. After the bill was approved, she said she was “pleased that the House has agreed on a framework” for the reconciliation bill.

Progressives, on the other hand, were openly dismissive of the deal. “I just don’t really think this amounted to anything. It feels like, you know, a wasteful fiasco. I think they’ve made a spectacle of themselves,” Omar told The Hill.

Where things go from here

The differences within the Minnesota delegation on the budget and infrastructure bills echo the split within congressional Democrats as a whole, a group that has at times struggled to agree on policy priorities even with control of the House and a 50-50 Senate.

And despite all the drama, the budget reconciliation vote didn’t do much besides give Democrats the opportunity to start drafting legislative text for the budget and set a deadline for the infrastructure vote.

Democratic leaders hope to pass both bills before the end of September, but the difficulty of getting something that has a chance of passing means the process of writing the spending bill and agreeing to a final price tag could be contentious — and slow.

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In the meantime, progressives and moderates show few signs of backing away from their positions. Soon after the House vote, Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus, issued a statement saying progressives’ position was “unchanged” on moving the bills together. “As our members have made clear for three months, the two are integrally tied together, and we will only vote for the infrastructure bill after passing the reconciliation bill,” Jayapal said.