WASHINGTON — The House made an early return from its August recess Monday, but immediately hit a roadblock as Democratic leaders struggled to string together the votes to advance President Joe Biden's $3.5 trillion economic package.
There are two measure pending before the House — a budget resolution that will allow them to pass the economic package and a separate bill to authorize $550 billion in infrastructure spending.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and centrist House Democrats, locked in a standoff over the order the House should vote on bills, failed to reach a resolution by sundown as the two sides remained at odds over how to proceed after a series of meetings.
The group of centrist Democrats object to Pelosi's plan to begin work on the budget measure and to wait to pass the infrastructure bill.
For months, Pelosi has planned to pass both bills at once, a decision that will require the infrastructure bill to wait for weeks for final passage. But in recent days she has faced a mutiny from centrists who have threatened to vote against the budget bill unless the House first votes on infrastructure.
Pelosi can lose only three Democratic votes before the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill collapses. The nine moderates led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., who have insisted that the infrastructure bill be voted on first, dug in on Sunday night.
In a Washington Post op-ed, they wrote that they are "firmly opposed to holding the president’s infrastructure legislation hostage to reconciliation, risking its passage and the bipartisan support behind it."
The nine Democrats wrote that Biden has called on the House to pass the infrastructure bill "immediately," implying that he wants a vote on it before turning to the larger budget bill.
But when asked by NBC News on Monday if Biden is calling for that, White House spokesman Andrew Bates responded: "No."
"He has been clear that he wants both bills on his desk and that he looks forward to signing each. He supports Speaker Pelosi’s approach to the Rule because it provides for consideration of the Build Back Better agenda, the historic bipartisan infrastructure bill, and critical voting rights legislation," Bates said in an email.
On Monday, a coalition of progressive groups announced a six-figure ad buy targeting the centrists. "Tell Representative Gottheimer: Stop obstructing President Biden," a narrator says.
Pelosi, D-Calif., has sought to placate those moderates by setting an Oct. 1 target to pass both bills.
"It is unfortunate in my view that we have to have a discussion about process, when we want to have a discussion of policy," she told House Democrats during a full caucus meeting Monday afternoon, according to a source familiar with the meeting.
She urged Democrats not to "squander this majority and this Democratic White House," according to the source.
'Throwing a bomb at the 11th hour'
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., accused the moderates of "throwing a bomb at the 11th hour" at Biden's agenda.
"It's not just me, I think a lot of members of our caucus are pretty bewildered," she told reporters on Monday. "It's kind of last minute — it feels impulsive."
Democratic leaders released text of a "rule" that sets up a vote on the budget resolution, which would instruct committees to write a $3.5 trillion package of expansions of the social safety net and tax increases on upper earners. It can pass both chambers without any Republican support.
The rule has three parts: the budget resolution, the Senate infrastructure bill and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal "preclearance" to change voting laws.
Pelosi wants to pass both bills simultaneously, in part because many progressive Democrats say they won't vote for the infrastructure package unless it is linked to the $3.5 trillion legislation.
Biden faces criticism, some of it from senior Democrats on Capitol Hill, about his handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is unclear whether that will get in the way of passing his domestic agenda, which will require pressure on reluctant lawmakers under the party's narrow majorities.
"I'm not concerned," said Faiz Shakir, a longtime adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the Budget Committee chair, who is overseeing the crafting of the larger bill.
"A president has enormous responsibilities, but you have a large team to help you get it done. I'm confident he and his administration have the ability to walk and chew gum," Shakir said. "Whether it's Afghanistan or the domestic agenda on building back better, all we're talking about is fulfilling the pledges he campaigned and won on."
The stakes are high for Biden's presidency and the future of the Democratic Party, which hopes to campaign on the infrastructure and budget bills in the congressional elections next year.
"I don't know how this is going to play out in the House with the so-called centrists. Are they going to continue to stand up to the president, or are they going to fall in line?" said Jim Manley, a lobbyist and former Democratic leadership aide. "I'm not quite sure what the endgame is here, but I learned a long time ago not to bet against Speaker Pelosi."