Podcast: Dems Reach Deal To Vote On Biden's Domestic Agenda : The NPR Politics Podcast Moderate House Democrats want to vote on infrastructure before negotiations continue on the big Biden economic plan. Progressive Democrats, joined by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, worry that would sacrifice much-needed leverage. The compromise the party brokered Tuesday shows just how much work lies ahead as the party works to pass the heart of President Biden's agenda.

This episode: demographics and culture correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben, White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, and congressional editor Deirdre Walsh.

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Today Proved How Hard It Will Be For Democrats To Pass These Huge Bills

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ANORA: Hi. This is Anora (ph) from Washington, D.C. I'm about to officiate my twin brother Arnav (ph) and soon-to-be sister-in-law Sarah's (ph) wedding, which was delayed a year. You're listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, which was recorded at...


2:07 p.m. on Tuesday, August 24.

ANORA: Things may have changed by now, but we are definitely going ahead with Ganesh Puja, a Hindu ceremony to remove all obstacles. With that, enjoy the show.


KURTZLEBEN: Oh, congratulations.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Yeah, very nice. Congrats to the happy couple.

KURTZLEBEN: Exactly, that's so lovely.

Hey there. It is the NPR POLTICS PODCAST. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: And I'm Deirdre Walsh, congressional editor.

KURTZLEBEN: And today we are talking about Congress, specifically House Democrats' clash over two big bills. One is Joe Biden's $3.5 trillion economic plan, which is full of Democratic priorities like universal pre-K, child care and environmental efforts. The other is a bipartisan infrastructure deal passed by the Senate, which we have talked about a lot on this podcast. The conflict has been over how to move forward on both of those.

So, Deirdre, this is why you're here. Walk us through the basics of this conflict, because there's been a split between a smaller group of more moderate Democrats and the rest of the party caucus. So what exactly has that tension been?

WALSH: Well, it's certainly been a really messy couple of days for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I mean, there has always been tension inside the caucus between the moderates and the progressives, which make up, you know, a larger number of the House Democratic caucus. But the moderates wanted to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate earlier this month. Now, they wanted to give President Joe Biden a win. They wanted to pass it and have him sign that bill so that they had an accomplishment.

The progressives in the caucus were concerned that could lose momentum for this broader $3.5 trillion economic package. And they argue that the voters that gave Democrats power in Washington, both at the White House and on Capitol Hill, wanted Democrats to do all of these things and that they needed to still deliver on the full domestic agenda. And they were worried that if one got split off from the other, it could jeopardize the second package.

So Pelosi has really had, you know, a balancing act because she only has a three-vote margin. So the compromise that she came up with, which is moving forward today, is that the Democrats are saying that the House will vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill by September 27. This will allow the budget process to move ahead. And the House and the Senate will now start working on the details of this budget reconciliation package. But we're really only at the beginning of this process.

RASCOE: So they're still going to have that vote on the infrastructure bill, but this will give them time to do that, you know, the big thing, the big $3.5 trillion thing. Do the moderates - are they concerned about that big, massive package? Like, would they support the big package with the universal pre-K and all that other stuff or, will they only support this infrastructure package?

WALSH: What they're saying is that they have concerns about the size and the scope of that package and that there aren't any details yet. So what they're saying is let's go ahead and vote on this bipartisan infrastructure package. They're also saying today that the speaker has agreed that the House would only vote on a package that gets 51 votes in the Senate. They don't want to just sign off on a $3.5 trillion bill without any details. And we already know from the moderates in the Senate - we talked a lot about the moderates in the Senate, like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Sinema has made it clear that the $3.5 trillion price tag is too big for her.

So I think a lot of House moderates are like, why are we signing on to vote for something that may never pass the Senate? So I think that this is their way of trying to rein in the process and have some, you know, influence over it. But the thing is, they may have gotten a date on the bipartisan infrastructure vote that they want, but they really didn't get any sort of ironclad assurances about what's going to be in this much broader package.

KURTZLEBEN: I see. And, well, and meanwhile, you have this much bigger group of more liberal Democrats who have said they aren't willing to pass the infrastructure proposal without action on that big economic package. So what's the argument they're making here?

WALSH: Well, I think they believe that this whole package of bills is a commitment they made to voters when they campaigned in 2020, that Democrats in Washington were going to not only pass, you know, much-needed infrastructure upgrades for roads and bridges, but broader domestic policy priorities to expand the social safety net, things like expanding Medicare coverage for vision and dental and hearing for child care, tax credits for free community college. These are all things that they believe go hand in hand. And they didn't want to separate out sort of the smaller package that did have some bipartisan support in the Senate and is expected to have some in the House from that broader package that they have to pass just with Democratic votes.

KURTZLEBEN: Ayesha, I'm curious about where the White House is in all of this, because clearly, this is Biden's economic agenda. But is the White House publicly involved with the logistics here, with how these things get passed?

RASCOE: Publicly, they are putting a lot of their backing into Pelosi and believing because Pelosi has been able to get some really big things done in the past, that she'll be able to get this done, too. And I think this is also, you know, Jen Psaki - White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked about this yesterday. And she talked about how the president has had multiple calls with Pelosi in recent days and that this is, you know, that they want all of this to get done. And so they're less concerned about the process. They're saying there are lots of different options and different ways to get this done. This is a democracy. They have to figure this out. But they want it all done.

And the stakes are very high for this administration - right? - because they are going through a rough period. Approval numbers for Biden are dropping because of everything that's happening in Afghanistan, the delta variant. And so they need to show that they can deliver on something. And this is where they can show they can deliver on their economic promises. So that is why the stakes are so high for this administration. But they're putting a lot of faith in Pelosi.

WALSH: And, Ayesha, Pelosi did remind her colleagues just a few minutes ago about how big of a deal this whole exercise is and what it means for the party going forward.


NANCY PELOSI: Passing this rule paves the way for Building Back Better, the Building Back Better plan, which will forge legislative progress unseen in 50 years that will stand for generations alongside the New Deal and the Great Society. This legislation will be the biggest and perhaps most controversial initiatives that any of us have ever undertaken in our official lives.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So that was Pelosi not long before we just started recording here. This is all ongoing today. Deirdre, where have Democrats landed as of right now?

WALSH: Well, this first step lets them start the much harder job of writing the details for this $3.5 trillion package. So the committees are going to go back and do that now. And they're really trying to sort of turbocharge that process and give committees till the end of September. I mean, a $3.5 trillion bill that remakes the federal safety net is a big undertaking. So I think we're just sort of at the beginning of this fight between moderates and progressives, because, you know, sort of when the details hit the paper, there's going to be a lot of members weighing in about what they want in the final deal.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, we're going to take a quick break, and we will have more in a second.


KURTZLEBEN: And we are back. And we have been talking a lot about Congress here, but let's talk more about the White House, Ayesha, because Joe Biden campaigned on compromise, on being more moderate than some of his competition. Could he be a conciliatory voice here with this group of moderates and with moderate Congress members more broadly?

RASCOE: It is interesting to see this play out because the past two presidencies that we had, Obama and Trump, really had a problem with Congress, right? Like, they - it wasn't their thing. But Congress is really Biden's thing, right? He really - he was a senator for a very long time. And he is very into the negotiating and the maneuvering, I feel like in a way that prior presidents have not. And so he wants to be calling behind the scenes, doing the negotiating. And that's part of what he can do here. He can try to, you know, give some ground for the moderates. He can try to, you know, be the bad guy for the liberals if they need somebody that they can kind of attack a bit. He's willing to play those roles because, ultimately, he just wants to get something done. And he does seem to understand in a way that other presidents have not, recent presidents have not, how to try to work Congress. And he will need that knowledge to get done what he's trying to get done, because it is massive, as we've already said.

WALSH: And, Ayesha, the other thing Joe Biden has is he has an asset in a very experienced House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi.


WALSH: I mean, this is not her first rodeo. She had to maneuver a very complicated health care bill in her first term as speaker. So she has a lot of experience and tricks up her sleeve, which we've seen play out in the last day and a half. So I think sometimes he leaves I think the, you know, ins and outs of maneuvering the caucus to her. But certainly his relationships, like you talked about with lawmakers, you know, is a different type of administration than we've seen from the past couple of presidents.

KURTZLEBEN: You know, Deirdre, speaking of the relationship between Biden and Congress, I'm curious about, is there a greater capacity, I suppose, for turmoil in Congress right now as Joe Biden has his attention on another crisis, the crisis in Afghanistan right now? Is there more room for lawmakers to make waves right now?

WALSH: I do think there is. I mean, I think that there is, you know, a weakening in the presidency right now, because you do see some Democrats who are normally, you know, sort of side by side with President Biden openly questioning his decisions on how he's handling the withdrawal from Afghanistan. I mean, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff, yesterday went out to a microphone and took issue with the commitment that the withdrawal could be finished by August 31. He said it was very unlikely. I mean, that was a clear break from the White House. So it's kind of rare. But I think at this moment, there are some Democrats willing to break with the president, just like they're moderates, you know, sort of willing to openly break with Speaker Pelosi.

KURTZLEBEN: And, Ayesha, I'm curious about that from your point of view, from the White House point of view as well. You mentioned earlier that the political stakes for Biden to get these bills passed seems higher now because of Afghanistan. And I'm wondering how lasting could the damage from not passing these be. Is this the sort of thing that could imperil him in 2024?

RASCOE: Well, I mean, that's going way into the future. We got to - I think we got to figure out what was happening today. But this is what I will say. He has to get something done, right? Like, I think even just looking at 2022, the midterms, they have to get something done. And he has to be able to make a case that he was able to deliver for the American people. So he has to.

And the argument that some would make and the reason why there's this emphasis on getting everything done right, right now - universal pre-K, community college, everything - is because after 2022, you do not know that you're going to have those majorities, the very slim majorities that you have now. And so you have this very narrow window to get something done and to be able to sell it to the American people. So in that sense, this is a make-or-break moment for his presidency because he has to get something done - to not do so would be devastating.


KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, we are going to leave it there for now until tomorrow.

I am Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

WALSH: And I'm Deirdre Walsh, congressional editor.

KURTZLEBEN: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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