Senate Democratic leaders, facing skepticism from liberals about the direction of bipartisan infrastructure talks, plan to formally begin a process that would allow them to pass President Joe Biden’s signature policy agenda along straight party lines.
The move is meant to placate progressives who are concerned their priorities won’t be included in a bipartisan plan and is a way for Democratic leaders to show they are pushing forward with a strategy to pass sweeping legislation on the strength of their narrow Senate majority and without Republican support.
But it risks turning off moderate Democrats who are more focused on reaching across the aisle and threatens to scuttle a carefully crafted compromise with Republicans.
In an effort to strike a delicate balance, Democratic leaders argue that they are taking a dual-track approach by keeping the door open to deliver a bipartisan deal while also laying the groundwork to pass a separate, broader infrastructure package with only Democratic votes. The smaller package is designed to focus on more traditional projects like roads, bridges and broader — while the larger package will include an expansion of the social safety net that Biden envisioned in his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Tuesday that the Senate will attempt next month to pass a budget resolution, which will pave the way for Democrats to move an infrastructure bill through a procedural tool known as reconciliation that allows certain pieces of legislation to pass with a simple majority threshold.
Adopting a budget resolution is the first step in passing a bill via reconciliation since both chambers would first need to adopt a resolution in order to unlock the process of moving reconciliation legislation. A reconciliation bill likely wouldn’t be considered until after the congressional recess in August.
But to do that, Democrats will need the support of all 50 members of their caucus — and that is still uncertain.
“Tomorrow, I’m convening a meeting with all 11 Democratic members of the Senate Budget Committee regarding a fiscal year ’22 budget resolution and now that President Biden’s fiscal ’22 budget request has been received by Congress, the Budget Committee can begin the important work of producing a budget resolution,” Schumer told reporters.
“Both are moving forward — the bipartisan track and the track on reconciliation and both we hope to get done in the month of July, both the budget resolution and the bipartisan bill,” Schumer said.
But it’s not at all clear that a bipartisan deal can be secured and enacted amid resistance from Republicans as well as progressives. Some liberal members of the Senate Democratic Caucus, such as Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, have expressed concerns that climate protections could be left on the backburner if the emphasis is on a bipartisan deal.
And many have demanded assurances from the top Democratic moderates, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, that they would sign off on the reconciliation process — something that the senators have yet to do.
“If there was to be some miracle, bipartisan deal, I think it would be very difficult to find the votes for that in the House — unless there was simultaneous movement and agreement of the full reconciliation package with 50 votes in the Senate,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat and a leader of the Progressive Caucus.
According to a senior Democratic aide, when Schumer convenes the meeting with Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee, the majority leader will push to ensure that key climate as well as caregiving components are included in the framework.
Some Democratic senators have indicated that the only way to shore up the votes for a bipartisan package within their caucus will be to make clear that if one is enacted, there will also be an ironclad commitment to passing any priorities left out of it in a separate reconciliation bill.
“A bipartisan bill and a reconciliation bill has to be chained together with a lock that cannot be broken,” Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota said. “Got to make sure the caucus is together on both. That’s the work we have to do over the next few weeks.”
A bipartisan group of 10 senators recently announced a tentative deal on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package over eight years, but it still faces serious obstacles from skeptics in both parties and many of the specific details still need to be ironed out. While it wouldn’t raise taxes on corporations and high-earners, as Democrats want, it would redirect $100 billion in unspent funds from Covid-19 relief legislation, eliminate a tax rebate for people who buy electric cars and raise the gas tax subject to inflation.
Since they are moving through the normal legislative process, the bipartisan plan would need 60 votes — meaning at least 10 Republicans in the 50-50 Senate. Senators in the group briefed their respective caucuses about the plan on Tuesday in an effort to build a broader bipartisan coalition.
But Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, expressed skepticism on Tuesday about significant GOP support for a bipartisan infrastructure package, after predicting Monday “there would be substantial Republican support” for a bipartisan deal.
“Are there 60 votes? You know, can you get 20 Republicans or 25 Republicans and 35 or 40 Democrats — that’s probably the sweet spot, and I just don’t know at this point based on what we’ve seen whether that can happen,” he said.
And some liberals are not on board with the idea yet.
Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Senate Budget Committee chairman, dismissed the idea of supporting a bipartisan infrastructure plan that would be paired with a reconciliation plan, arguing that it’s not clear how such a plan would be funded. “You don’t know how it’s going to be funded,” he said, adding, “the outlines of the plan are outlines, we have no specifics.”