Pelosi barrels toward budget showdown with Dem centrists

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The standoff between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a group of House Democratic moderates will come to a head as soon as Monday, as leadership barrels ahead on President Joe Biden’s massive social spending plan without a guarantee it has the votes to pass.

The House returns with Democrats essentially in the same position as they were when the chamber adjourned three weeks ago for its summer recess amid resistance from centrists vowing to derail their leaders' plans. But with a key vote on the party’s budget blueprint slated for as soon as Tuesday, the pressure is ramping up and Biden himself is expected to start phoning recalcitrant lawmakers in an effort to change their minds.

The group of centrists led by New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer is demanding an immediate vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill that the Senate passed earlier this month. Pelosi — not one to respond well to rank-and-file demands — is refusing to divert from her plan to first pass a Biden-blessed $3.5 trillion social spending plan through the filibuster-proof maneuver known as budget reconciliation, a process that is expected to take weeks or even months.

“If there’s some sort of way to work this out, then of course we’re working toward that. I’ve said that to leadership,” Gottheimer said in an interview, adding that his group is refusing to “wait until December” for Biden’s infrastructure bill to pass.

Pelosi and her leadership team face their first test Monday, as the House returns to vote on the rule governing floor debate this week. The House Rules Committee will meet at 11 a.m. to tee up that procedural move. However, some senior Democrats caution that plans to vote on the rule are in flux as leadership continues its whipping operation. Democrats were set to meet for a rare Monday night caucus meeting before votes.

The expansive rule will set the debate boundaries for three bills — the infrastructure package, the budget framework needed to unlock reconciliation and a voting rights bill named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). But Pelosi only intends to bring the voting rights legislation and budget resolution to a final vote this week, angering moderates.

Pelosi released a letter over the weekend meant to appease the centrist group in some ways. The speaker laid out a timeline for passing both the infrastructure bill and reconciliation package by Oct. 1, when current surface transportation programs expire. She also vowed that while the budget framework would be written to the agreed-upon $3.5 trillion top line, the resulting spending bill also would be “paid for" — as lawmakers privately say that the latter promise effectively negates the former spending target.

“Any delay to passing the budget resolution threatens the timetable for delivering the historic progress and the transformative vision that Democrats share,” Pelosi wrote, casting this week’s series of votes as a loyalty test to the president.

“In support of President Biden’s vision to Build Back Better, we must move quickly to pass the budget resolution this week,” she added.

The social spending package is expected to be a massive build-out of Democratic priorities, from expanding Medicare to providing paid family leave, universal pre-K, immigration reform and action to fight climate change.

That group of nine moderates was in close communication over the weekend, affirming to each other that they all remain opposed to supporting the party’s budget on the floor even as speculation rose that some might cave. They privately said Pelosi’s letter did little to quell their fears about a delayed infrastructure vote — or of the caucus’ left wing holding the Senate deal hostage to secure their own demands for the bigger spending package.

Those House moderates were also in contact with their Senate counterparts after spending weeks working together on the bipartisan infrastructure deal. One of those centrist senators, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), officially ruled out negotiating with Pelosi in a Monday statement. Sinema's spokesperson said the bipartisan bill "should be considered on its own merits" and that she will not budge in her opposition to a $3.5 trillion spending bill.

Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) both supported the budget resolution setting up a spending bill as large as $3.5 trillion but have declined to commit to supporting that final top-line number when it's turned into formal legislation. And Sinema's specific veto of that number Monday could put her legislation in fresh peril in the House, where she served for three terms.

“Proceedings in the U.S. House will have no impact on Kyrsten’s views about what is best for our country – including the fact that she will not support a budget reconciliation bill that costs $3.5 trillion," said Sinema spokesperson John LaBombard.

Manchin, meanwhile, urged the House to "put politics aside" and vote on infrastructure "swiftly."

"It would send a terrible message to the American people if this bipartisan bill is held hostage," Manchin said in a statement Monday.

Some House moderates, such as Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), have also blasted any bill with a price tag of $3.5 trillion.

With House Democrats’ divisions on display, outside groups are already dueling on the airwaves. Progressive groups led by Justice Democrats launched a six-figure ad buy on Monday targeting the nine centrist Democrats they say are “sabotaging Biden’s agenda” — a direct counter to another set of ads from the centrist group No Labels hailing what they called the “unbreakable nine.”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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