WASHINGTON — Moderate House Democrats drew a new set of lines in the sand Friday on a $3.5 trillion budget bill that is the centerpiece of President Joe Biden's domestic agenda.
"In order to obtain our support," Reps. Stephanie Murphy of Florida and Henry Cuellar of Texas wrote to Speaker Nancy Pelosi on behalf of a larger set of moderates, the budget "reconciliation" bill "must adhere" to "three overarching principles:"
- The text of the bill would have to be worked out ahead of time between the two chambers — in an informal process known as "pre-conferencing" — so that politically vulnerable Democrats don't have to vote on controversial provisions that won't make it into law.
- Most of the bill's spending would have to be offset, with an exception for climate change provisions. The exception — which should please the left — comes as the result of the lawmakers determining the cost of inaction on climate change isn't calculated by congressional budget scorekeepers
- They want at least 72 hours to read the final legislation before they are asked to vote on it.
The demands come in the midst of a legislative-hostage war between Sen. Joe Manchin, W-Va., and congressional progressives over the budget bill and a second measure that would fund physical infrastructure projects and other Biden priorities.
"What we’re trying to get to is a piece of legislation that will actually become law," Murphy said in a telephone interview with NBC News. Murphy and Cuellar are both chief deputy whips, responsible for helping corral votes for the Democratic majority, and they addressed their letter to Pelosi, D-Calif.; Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.; and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.
On Thursday, Manchin wrote in The Wall Street Journal that his party should pause its consideration of the bill and that he won't support anything close to $3.5 trillion. Echoing the concerns of Republicans and some economists, he said that he is worried that pushing so much money into the economy will create inflationary pressure.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, responded by saying he's ready to kill the infrastructure-plus measure Manchin negotiated with a bipartisan group of senators.
"No infrastructure bill without the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill," Sanders said.
The letter from House moderates ties their votes to whatever Manchin and Sen. Krysten Sinema, D-Ariz., will agree to — perhaps giving them more leverage — but it also suggests Pelosi will have latitude on climate provisions that are crucial to progressives. Effectively, it's a road map for getting both bills into law that emphasizes the status of moderates as the drawbridge.
While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., can't afford any defections on the reconciliation bill, Pelosi is also operating with thin margins. She can only lose three Democrats on partisan roll calls.
Murphy said the demand that lawmakers get three days to read a final bill is an effort to avoid errors Republicans made in drafting a major tax-cut law during former President Donald Trump's term.
"They made mistakes because they moved too fast and didn't allow their members to fully read what they were trying to pass," Murphy said. "As Democrats, we can do better."