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House advances $3.5T budget, ending stalemate between Pelosi and centrists

The House passed a $3.5 trillion budget framework Tuesday, capping off several days of furious negotiating and ending a weekslong stalemate between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a band of Democratic centrists who threatened to upend President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda.

The House vote clears the way for Democrats to pursue a massive social spending package that could pass both chambers without Republican support and sets a Sept. 27 House vote on the Senate-passed infrastructure bill. All Democrats, including the roughly dozen moderates who threatened to tank the party-line spending plan, voted in favor — a show of party unity that leadership strove for after tensions between the caucus’ dueling factions dominated the public conversation for weeks.

The agreement between Pelosi and the group of centrists led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) followed several hours of frenetic negotiating Monday night that carried over into Tuesday. Pelosi outlined the details of the compromise in a statement released during the vote, even going so far as to thank Gottheimer and his group “for their enthusiastic support for the infrastructure bill.”

“I am committing to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill by September 27. I do so with a commitment to rally House Democratic support for its passage,” Pelosi said. “We must keep the 51-vote privilege by passing the budget and work with House and Senate Democrats to reach agreement in order for the House to vote on a Build Back Better Act that will pass the Senate.”

The compromise is a significant win for Gottheimer, Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) and the other centrists, who for weeks have been telegraphing to leadership that they would vote against the budget resolution unless Pelosi brought the Senate-passed infrastructure bill up for an immediate vote.

“This is a big win for America and will help get people to work and shovels in the ground,” the moderate Democrats said in a statement. “We have established a path forward that ensures we can pass this once-in-a-century infrastructure investment by September 27th, allowing us to create millions of jobs and bring our nation into the 21st century.”

Pelosi dug in, insisting she would not bring the infrastructure bill up for a vote until the Senate passed the massive social spending bill Democrats are hoping to muscle through in the coming weeks. Having both chambers pass the budget resolution was key to unlocking the filibuster-proof process in the Senate, which is essential to pass the massive spending plan with just 51 votes.

While the Gottheimer group did not get their initial demand, they have a public agreement with leadership that says the House will consider the $550 billion infrastructure deal by a specific date — Sept. 27 — effectively guaranteeing it will become law by next month if House Democrats stay united to pass the bill.

In addition, Gottheimer’s group negotiated what they say are meaningful guarantees from leadership about the potential size and scope of the $3.5 trillion social spending plan. Moderates in both chambers, including influential Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), have signaled they are not supportive of such a large price tag.

The moderates sought a commitment from Pelosi and her leadership team that they would take part in extensive negotiations with Senate moderates, particularly Manchin and Sinema, before putting the party-line bill on the floor. Otherwise, they worried a House-passed bill could simply go ignored across the Capitol.

It remains to be seen how progressives, the other influential faction of Pelosi’s caucus, will react to the deal — which cuts against the promise she made to them to ensure the social spending plan would move through Congress first.

Progressives remained mostly quiet as their leadership negotiated the deal. But several prominent liberals did not hide their irritation after the deal was announced.

“You know the whole thing was a fiasco, to be honest,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), chief vote counter for the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I really don’t know why they try to get into something without having an actual goal that they wanted to accomplish. It seems like amateur hour.”

With a narrow three-vote margin, Pelosi and her leadership team cannot afford to alienate either corner of the caucus if they want to enact the two key planks of Biden’s domestic agenda.

“Democracy is messy and Democrats are not a cult, we’re a coalition,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday. “We’re a big family, we’re a diverse family, at times we’re a very enthusiastic family. But that is the House of Representatives.”

After the vote Tuesday, the House will technically go dark as lawmakers leave to continue their summer recess. But the agreement reached will kick off a flurry of activity over the next several weeks as top House Democrats work with their Senate counterparts to privately craft a spending bill that can pass both chambers.

With the infrastructure bill vote now slated for Sept. 27, Democratic leaders are teeing up a potential doomsday scenario with deadlines for government funding, surface transportation programs, key pandemic-relief programs and the debt limit all coming due at once.

“I think it’s very ambitious,” House Budget Chair John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said Tuesday, after the plan had been finalized.

For now, though, moderates were content to cheer their immediate victory after weeks of being underestimated and privately dismissed by some top Democrats.

The Gottheimer and Murphy group had pushed for guarantees that the lower chamber would closely coordinate with their Senate counterparts on the final product, to avoid a tough House vote on a package that couldn’t become law without the full support of Senate Democrats.

“We’re not gonna vote on a measure that doesn’t have 51 votes in the Senate,” said Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), another one of the moderate holdouts, said Tuesday.

The deal nearly came together and almost fell apart several times over the past two days, with a surprise final hiccup over language Tuesday morning that delayed the announcement of an agreement by several hours.

Moderates worried the agreement was not sufficiently strong enough to guarantee a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, forcing the Rules Committee back into session with revised language. A Democratic leadership aide called the mix-up a “distinction without a difference” but several centrists insisted on the changes.

“There were some folks who want a little more assurance about that vote on the 27th,” Cuellar, one of the moderates, told reporters.

The digging-in by moderates came as a surprise to many on Capitol Hill who expected Gottheimer’s group to ultimately cave to Pelosi’s strategy. The centrist resistors even saw their ranks grow when Murphy vowed not to move forward on Monday with a Democratic-only reconciliation push until the House considered the bipartisan infrastructure bill on the floor.

Frustrations among the broader Democratic caucus over the moderate intransigence spilled out during an emotional, closed-door meeting Monday where House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer called the internal fighting “mutually assured destruction.”

And many Democrats remained furious at Gottheimer and his group Tuesday, as they continued to hold up progress on the centerpiece of Biden’s agenda as they haggled with leadership over wording.

“These negotiations are never easy,” said House Rules Chair Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) as he prepared to tee up the vote. “I say it takes a therapist. But the therapy session is done.”

Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this report.

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