Biden urges passage of two key bills amid legislative “stalemate”

Published: September 24, 2021 10:05 PM EDT
President Joe Biden. Credit: Getty Images via CBS News.

President Biden acknowledged Friday that Congress is “getting down to the hard spot” on negotiations over his massive social spending plan, as Democrats are navigating a deep divide between their moderate and progressive wings.

Progressive Democrats want to delay the House vote scheduled Monday on the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, so that they can first vote on the up-to $3.5 trillion measure that aims to create jobs, raise taxes on the wealthy, address climate change and ease the financial burden on lower- and middle-income families. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says the infrastructure vote will take place Monday/

At the same time, the federal government faces the possibility of a partial government shutdown and is likely a few weeks from U.S. default, which has never before happened. On Friday, speaking to reporters at length about his legislative agenda, the president had a clear message to lawmakers in his party.

“Now, we’re at this stalemate at the moment, and we’re going to have to get these two pieces of legislation passed. Both need to be passed,” he said.

A majority of the 96-member House Progressive Caucus say they’ll vote against the bipartisan bill that passed in the Senate if the reconciliation bill isn’t passed first, while moderate Democrats insist infrastructure needs to pass first and have and at least two Democratic senators are withholding their support for the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill because its price tag is too high.

Some moderate Republicans may vote for the infrastructure bill, but it’s unclear if there are enough of them to compensate if progressives make good on their threat. House GOP leaders are encouraging members to vote “no” on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

Mr. Biden met with key Democratic lawmakers at the White House Wednesday in an attempt to resolve some of their differences.

“One of the things that I think is important, and I’m trying to get people to focus on, is, what is it you like?” Mr. Biden said Friday, referencing Democratic lawmakers. “What do you think we — forget a number. What do you think we should be doing? … And several of them, when they go through their priorities, it adds up to a number higher than they said they were for. Because I think this is — we’re getting down to the hard spot here. People are having now to go in and look in detail as to what it is specifically they’re for.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, standing alongside Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Pelosi, announced Thursday that the White House and congressional Democrats reached an agreement on a “framework” for revenue to support a massive reconciliation bill. But he, Pelosi and the White House said little more about what that framework actually entails. Pelosi offered no figures on how large the reconciliation bill would ultimately be, and it isn’t even clear who within the Democratic Party has signed off on the revenue “framework.”

“It’s not about a price tag — it’s about values, not dollars,” Pelosi said Thursday.

Pelosi also didn’t say whether she believes she has the votes to move forward with the scheduled vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Monday.

“We take it one day at a time. I’m confident that we will pass both bills,” Pelosi said of the infrastructure and reconciliation bills.

Negotiations over the infrastructure and reconciliation bills come as Congress struggles to avoid defaulting on the nation’s debts. The debt ceiling or debt limit is the maximum amount the U.S. is allowed to borrow to pay its debts. If Congress does not vote to raise it, “some time in October — it is impossible to predict precisely when — the Treasury Department’s cash balance will fall to an insufficient level, and the federal government will be unable to pay its bills,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece Sunday.

Republicans are refusing to help lift the debt ceiling, arguing that the Democratic-controlled Congress and Biden administration are spending recklessly, so they alone should cast the votes to raise the debt limit. Democrats retort that they joined Republicans in voting to increase the debt ceiling three times under former President Trump.

“This could not be simpler,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday. “If they want to tax, borrow, and spend historic sums of money without our input, they’ll have to raise the debt limit without our help. This is the reality.”

The House has passed what’s known as a “continuing resolution” to fund the government at current levels through December 3 and to suspend the debt limit through December 16, 2022. If the Senate were to pass the measure, lawmakers would avoid default and avert a partial government shutdown that would occur when funding runs out on September 30.

But McConnell’s threat suggests that when the Senate takes a key procedural vote on the House bill, which Schumer said would happen on Monday, the measure will fail.

“Every single member in this chamber is going on record as to whether they support keeping the government open and averting a default or support shutting us down and careening our country toward a default,” Schumer said Thursday night.

Still, Pelosi has expressed confidence that the federal government would avert a shutdown. “We will have a CR that passes both houses by September 30,” she said.

The Office of Management and Budget has requested that agencies begin preparing their updated shutdown plans together, a standard procedure when Washington gets close to a potential shutdown.

“We fully expect Congress to work in a bipartisan fashion to keep our government open, get disaster relief to the Americans who need it, and avoid a catastrophic default, especially as we continue to confront the pandemic and power an economic recovery. In the meantime, prudent management requires that the government plan for the possibility of a lapse in funding,” OMB spokesman Abdullah Hasan said. “Consistent with longstanding practice across multiple Administrations, OMB is preparing for any contingency, and determinations about specific programs are being actively reviewed by agencies. More importantly, there is enough time for Congress to prevent a lapse in appropriations, and we are confident they will do so.”

All of this — intraparty disagreements over the president’s key agenda spending, the debt ceiling and the possibility of a government shutdown — comes weeks after the administration’s widely criticized withdrawal from Afghanistan left some Americans and vulnerable Afghans behind as the Taliban’s government takes shape. On Friday, the president addressed those who had hoped his administration would have a better handle on the country, and the world, by now.

“There’s a lot I’m sure along the line that there are things that I could have done better, but I make no apologies for my proposals, how I’m proceeding, and why I think by the end of the year we’re going to be in a very different place,” he said.