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Centrist Democrats now hold the cards as infrastructure bill heads to Biden's desk

Progressive activists are organizing to keep the pressure on House moderates to follow through and vote for the social safety net package.
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WASHINGTON — Centrist Democrats now control the fate of President Joe Biden's social spending and climate package after Congress passed his bipartisan infrastructure bill late last week.

House progressives dropped their blockade of the infrastructure measure Friday after they secured commitments from a narrow but pivotal group of moderate Democrats who said they would vote for the Build Back Better bill after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released a cost analysis that matched White House estimates saying the legislation is fully paid for.

There's a big caveat there.

Five Democratic lawmakers — Reps. Ed Case of Hawaii, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Stephanie Murphy of Florida, Kathleen Rice of New York and Kurt Schrader of Oregon — said in a joint statement Friday that they committed "to voting for the Build Back Better Act, in its current form other than technical changes, as expeditiously as we receive fiscal information from the Congressional Budget Office." The vote would take place no later than the week of Nov. 15 as long as the CBO findings are "consistent" with the White House projections, the lawmakers added.

The social spending package, initially offered as a $3.5 trillion bill, has been cut in half to $1.75 trillion to meet the demands of skeptical Democrats in the House and the Senate who now have the power to tank it.

The bill cleared a procedural vote Friday, after the infrastructure bill passed, with House Democrats voting unanimously to proceed to debate the measure after the CBO issues its cost analysis.

Gottheimer said Sunday on CNN that they fully intend to pass it by the end of next week.

"We plan to move forward, because it's going to meet our expectations, I'm sure," he said.

A power shift

Progressive activists are organizing to keep the pressure on House centrists to follow through and vote for the bill, with some feeling anxious that the left gave up its main leverage by passing the infrastructure measure before a vote on the larger spending package.

"I do think it shifted a little bit of the power away from the progressives and toward the moderates," said Bill Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said on MSNBC: "They needed some time to look at the numbers, but they would vote on it, and that is a commitment they made to me. It's a commitment they made to the president. And it's a commitment they put into writing."

Jonathan Kott, a Democratic consultant and former aide to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said moderates "will continue to negotiate in good faith as they have been" but simply want the CBO score. "If the CBO is not as expected, I think negotiations will continue but definitely make this a longer process," he said.

If the bill passes the House, it still needs to clear the Senate, where two key obstacles remain.

The first is Manchin. He has objected to some of the provisions in the House bill, particularly four weeks of paid family and medical leave. That and other policies may need to be removed to win his vote, without which Democrats cannot advance the bill.

The second is the so-called Byrd rule, which limits the budget process that Democrats are using to matters of spending and taxes. Republicans can challenge any provision as "extraneous," and the Senate parliamentarian would decide whether it can be included.

Kott said he expects the Senate to pass the bill "in mid- to late December."

"I think moderates want to make sure they get the bill right, not fast," he said.

Competing deadlines

Other hard deadlines could complicate the December timeline. Congress must pass legislation to fund the government by Dec. 3 or face a shutdown. Lawmakers also need to raise the debt limit to avert an economic meltdown. And Congress plans to pass a massive defense policy bill before the end of the year.

The infrastructure legislation provides around $550 billion in new spending, for a total of more than $1 trillion, in projects from roads to public transit to rural broadband. It was co-authored by Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and it became a top legislative priority of House centrists who had battled with liberals for months over the timeline to pass it.

The legislation is projected to add $256 billion to the debt over a decade, according to the CBO.

Despite progressives' biggest fears, centrist Democrats have plenty to like in the Build Back Better bill. Manchin has lavished praise on universal pre-K and child care funding, Sinema has championed the climate change measures, and Gottheimer has made an increase of the state and local tax deduction a priority.

The White House is counting on those incentives to help push the package across the finish line.

The White House plans a signing ceremony for the infrastructure bill, but there's one complication. After Biden signs it, a mandatory transfer of $118 billion to the highway trust fund would kick in. If he puts pen to paper immediately, that could move up the debt ceiling deadline.

Hoagland said the Treasury Department may have some wiggle room in when to transfer the funds to avoid getting closer to the borrowing limit before the issue is resolved.

"If the administration wants to delay the transfer, I think they have the flexibility to do that," he said, adding that holding off would preserve his organization's expected mid-December-to-January time frame for when Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling.

A senior administration official said Monday that officials will make an announcement about the transfer of highway money after the bill is signed.