Moderates in spotlight as Democrats regroup for infrastructure, social care bills – USA TODAY

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WASHINGTON – A group of moderate Democrats is holding out as lawmakers across the party resolved themselves to passing two pieces of legislation critical to President Joe Biden’s agenda.

“People will be disappointed. People will not get everything they want. That is the art of legislating, but the goal here is to get both bills, and we’re going to fight until we get both bills,” Cedric Richmond, a senior adviser to Biden, told NBC News’ “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

Democratic leaders search for ways to ensure that both moderates and liberals are satisfied by the final deals on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and $3.5 trillion budget package, which they want to pass together.

“Their future may be intertwined a little bit. We don’t necessarily agree … that they’re mutually exclusive,” Richmond told “Fox News Sunday” of the pieces of legislation.

More: Congress is still at odds over Biden’s infrastructure, budget plan. What would a deal mean for the president?

The characterization is bound to frustrate nine moderate House Democrats who pressed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package brokered in the Senate by Sept. 27.

Though a majority of Democratic lawmakers and the president support both bills, the party’s razor-thin majorities in both chambers of Congress mean that any small group of lawmakers could jeopardize the passage of a bill.

A lack of trust between different parts of the party led liberal lawmakers to suspect that the larger spending package wouldn’t be possible if moderate Democrats got their priorities passed in the infrastructure bill. The House Progressive Caucus, a 95-member coalition on the left, went through with its promise, forcing Pelosi to delay a vote until the larger package is agreed upon, setting up another round of negotiations.

More: The House missed its deadline to pass infrastructure. That doesn’t mean the bill has hit a dead end.

$3.5 trillion too big, $1.5 trillion too small

At issue is the total cost of the larger package, which aims to increase spending on the social safety net and climate policies and change major tax policies. The bill, last negotiated at $3.5 trillion, is considered too expensive by some moderates but not enough for many in the party.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday that he supports a $3.5 trillion topline figure for the reconciliation package but that reaching a passable deal is most important.

“Let me tell you at the outset, I support the $3.5 trillion. I believe that the elements of it have been stated over and over again. They’re good for this country, and they’re needed by families and by our nation,” Durbin said.

“But I’m a realist too,” he continued, predicting that, as in negotiations on legislation such as the Affordable Care Act, talks among all factions of the party “will lead to a different number.”

“I’m a realist,” Biden said Saturday, and “I know how legislation gets done.” The president said there’s “no reason why both these bills couldn’t pass independently except that there are not the votes to do it that way. It’s a simple proposition.”

‘Close the deal’:Biden struggles to unite Democrats behind his economic agenda

Liberal lawmakers ruled out a $1.5 trillion package, the maximum amount of spending with which Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he is comfortable.

“That’s too small to get our priorities in,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chair of the House Progressive Caucus, told CNN on Sunday. “It’s going to be somewhere between 1.5 (trillion) and 3.5 (trillion), and I think the White House is working on that right now because, remember, what we want to deliver is child care, paid leave and climate change, housing.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called Manchin’s figure “a good negotiating start” on ABC News’ “This Week.” He said he agrees with Manchin that the package should pay for itself. “And you can pay for it, with a $3.5 trillion bill, by finally demanding that the wealthiest people and large corporations start paying their fair share of taxes.”

Doubtful moderates face pushback within party

After a failed bid to expedite a vote on infrastructure, moderates in the House and Senate condemned the behavior of leaders and liberals. 

In a statement Saturday, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., called the progressives’ efforts a “failed stunt” and said the delayed vote was “inexcusable and deeply disappointing for communities across our country.”

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., wrote in a statement issued Friday evening that a “small far-left faction” of House Democrats “blocked a critical vote on the president’s historic bipartisan infrastructure bill.”

“This far-left faction is willing to put the president’s entire agenda, including this historic bipartisan infrastructure package, at risk. They’ve put civility and bipartisan governing at risk,” said Gottheimer, who led the group of nine Democrats pushing to expedite an infrastructure vote.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., said in a statement Friday evening that she was “profoundly disappointed and disillusioned by this process” after the infrastructure vote was delayed. She said that although she supports the $3.5 trillion package, “there is no – zero – linkage between these two bills in my mind.”

The lawmakers’ comments received swift backlash from colleagues.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., a moderate and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, argued that joint passage is the only path forward.

Sanders waved away Sinema’s critique on NBC News, claiming that Arizonans “are beginning to stand up and show some impatience” with the Arizona Democrat and that Sinema must “join the team here.”

“This is a long and complicated process, which is dealing with the most consequential piece of legislation probably since the New Deal in the Great Depression. It’s a big deal, and it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said.

White House gears up for next round of negotiations

The White House has communicated with lawmakers over both packages for months. Initially content to let congressional Democratic leaders steer negotiations, Biden has begun playing a larger role in trying to ensure the passage of his agenda.

“I believe I can get this done. I believe, when the American people are aware of what’s in it, we can get it done,” Biden said before boarding Marine One on Saturday.

After a meeting with Democratic lawmakers Friday evening, Biden said, “It doesn’t matter when – it doesn’t matter whether it’s in six minutes, six days or six weeks – we’re going to get it done.”

“We could bring the moderates and progressives together very easily if we had two more votes. Two, two people,” Biden said Saturday

Tuesday, Biden will travel to Howell, Michigan, to promote both packages, according to the White House. The town is in the district of Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a moderate House Democrat who  said she will “very seriously” examine a final reconciliation package and called “threatening” from progressives “unproductive.”

Biden will host lawmakers from different factions of the party this week for talks over the spending bills, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Saturday. 

Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.