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August 24, 2021 5:00 PM, EDT

$3.5 Trillion Budget Blueprint Passes First Step in House

Pelosi Agrees to Infrastructure Package Vote by Sept. 27
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi leaves the chamber Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) leaves the chamber Aug. 24. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

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WASHINGTON — Striking a deal with moderates, House Democratic leaders muscled President Joe Biden’s multitrillion-dollar budget blueprint over a key hurdle Aug. 24, ending a risky standoff and putting the party’s domestic infrastructure agenda back on track.

The 220-212 vote was a first step toward drafting Biden’s $3.5 billion rebuilding plan this fall, and the narrow outcome, in the face of stiff Republican opposition, showed the power a few voices have to alter the debate and signaled the challenges ahead still threatening to upend the president’s agenda.

After a turbulent 24 hours that brought House proceedings to a standstill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi told her colleagues before the vote that the legislation represents a federal investment on par with the New Deal and the Great Society.

Pelosi brushed aside the delays. “That’s just part of the legislative process,” she said, according to an aide granted anonymity to discuss a closed-door caucus meeting.

“Not only are we building the physical infrastructure of America, we are building the human infrastructure of America,” Pelosi said on the House floor.

Tensions had flared as a band of moderate lawmakers threatened to withhold their votes for the $3.5 trillion plan. They were demanding the House first approve a nearly $1 trillion bipartisan package of other public works projects that’s already passed the Senate.

In brokering the compromise, Pelosi committed to voting on the bipartisan package no later than Sept. 27, an attempt to assure lawmakers it won’t be left on the sidelines. It’s also in keeping with Pelosi’s insistence that the two bills move together as a more complete collection of Biden’s priorities. Pelosi has set a goal of passing both by Oct. 1.

Easing off the stalemate will shelve, for now, the stark divisions between moderate and progressive lawmakers who make up the Democrats’ so-slim House majority. But as the drama spilled out during what was supposed to be a quick session as lawmakers returned to work for a few days in August, it showcased the party differences that threaten to upend Biden’s ambitious rebuilding agenda.

With Republicans fully opposed to the president’s big plans, the Democratic leaders have just a few votes to spare. That gives any band of lawmakers leverage that can be used to make or break a deal, as they are in position to do in the weeks to come as moderates and progressives draft and vote on the broader $3.5 trillion package.

“I think it’s important to those of us who are moderate Democrats to make sure that our voices are heard,” said Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), one of the negotiators.

Challenging their party’s most powerful leaders, nine moderate Democrats signed onto a letter the week of Aug. 16 raising their objections to pushing ahead with Biden’s broader infrastructure proposal without first considering the smaller public works plan that has already passed the Senate.

Their ranks grew as other moderates raised similar concerns.

Progressives were outraged at the moderates, blaming them for potentially jamming Biden’s agenda, which is stocked with hard-fought party goals such as child care, paid family leave and Medicare expansion, along with green infrastructure spending.

Outside groups, including Justice Democrats, started running campaign ads, and members of Our Revolution, the organization aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders, protested Aug. 24 outside the New Jersey office of Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a leader of the moderate effort.

“This is a ‘which side are you on‘ moment,’” said Our Revolution Executive Director Joseph Geevarghese, who promised to “organize like never before to hold Democrats accountable and get this bill over the finish line.”

The budget measure is at the heart of Biden’s “Build Back Better” vision for helping families and combating climate change and is progressives’ top priority, all of it largely financed with tax increases on the rich and big business.

The House committees are already fast at work drafting legislation to fill in the details of the $3.5 trillion package for consideration later this fall.

Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Brian Slodysko and Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.

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