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The Gottheimer Gang’s Pointless Standoff
Conservative Democrats got a guarantee that the House would vote on the infrastructure bill by late September. But that changes nothing about the process.
The problem for the Gottheimer gang is they simply don’t have the same number of tools as the Speaker of the House in determining the sequencing of votes. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)
Given the Senate’s filibuster rules and its 50-50 split, congressional observers are conditioned to believe that all choke points on legislation originate in the Senate, and that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are the most powerful people in Washington. But as I wrote last month, House Democrats have only three votes to spare, and a wide ideological range within the caucus. Their most conservative members (or their most progressive members, for that matter) could easily stir up trouble and put President Biden’s agenda in peril.

We have recent history of this. The House ultimately proved the heavier lift than the Senate on the Affordable Care Act in 2010, despite having a much larger Democratic majority than it does today. A handful of conservative Democrats refused to move forward on passage without forcing in language requiring separate, nongovernmental funding for abortion services. A determined coalition, even if small, can get its way, even over the wily Nancy Pelosi.

But that presumes a degree of competence among the hostage takers that’s been nowhere in evidence in recent weeks. You can have the votes, and still not have the savvy of how to use that leverage.

Here’s the story: After Senate passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the bipartisan bill adding $550 billion in new spending for physical infrastructure projects, a group of nine moderates led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) insisted that they would need a vote on that bill first before agreeing to move forward a budget resolution that would unlock a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill involving a host of other public investments. This put a crimp in Pelosi’s plans, backed up by a large segment of her caucus (not just progressives), to only pass the IIJA after the Senate hands over the reconciliation bill, therefore giving both the progs and the mods a stake in both bills passing.

Pelosi knew that the path of least resistance involved flipping the Gottheimer Nine, rather than winning concessions from the much larger segment of progressives and liberal Democrats. First, she tried to bulldoze through them, assuming that the conservative Dems would cave. She lined up a vote on a multipart rule that set the conditions for debate on legislation, by bundling the budget resolution and the IIJA together. This would have allowed Gottheimer’s gang to say they got their vote, without changing the dynamics. That was the strategy right up until Monday, the scheduled day of the rule vote. Over the weekend, the Prospect was hearing that some of the nine members were going wobbly, but they all reaffirmed their stance in a Washington Post op-ed. A bundled rule or even a rule that “deemed” the budget resolution passed, so Gottheimer and company wouldn’t have to vote separately on that, wasn’t going to be enough.

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The leadership then tried shaming the Gottheimer gang. They tried using the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House campaign arm, to warn members that they could be cut off from donations. They reportedly threatened to break up one member’s turf through redistricting and to get another member’s relative, a White House staffer, fired. They had Biden, who supports Pelosi’s two-track strategy, call members. A tense caucus meeting, featuring a healthy degree of cursing, didn’t resolve the standoff either.

Let’s be clear that the Gottheimer gang has given no policy reason for why IIJA is so urgent. Given how appropriations work, no money would be spent out of the infrastructure package until October anyway. As well, states are currently holding $350 billion from the American Rescue Plan, some of which can go toward the very broadband and water system investments in the IIJA. And finally, infrastructure projects take a long time even just to break ground; passing the bill now or in a couple months’ time wasn’t going to speed up any ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

The real but unspoken reason the Gottheimer Nine (which became ten on Monday when Florida’s Stephanie Murphy joined the club) wanted the IIJA passed first is that they wanted to direct the path of the $3.5 trillion package, which some of them outright oppose. If the infrastructure bill, which they favor, was put to bed, then they could make demands to water down the reconciliation bill’s tax increases on the rich, or ensure that it includes repeal of the state and local tax deduction cap. By delinking the two bills, Gottheimer’s gang could gain leverage over both.

The problem for the Gottheimer gang is they simply don’t have the same number of tools as the Speaker of the House in determining the sequencing of votes. The procedural rule on the budget resolution and the infrastructure bill was therefore a silly place to make a stand. When it became clear that Pelosi wouldn’t give them an IIJA vote first, they bargained for a “date certain” to pass it. After a fruitless night of negotiations, on Tuesday the date certain was settled as September 27. At first, the language was completely nonbinding, executing a “sense of the House” resolution that the IIJA would be considered. Gottheimer balked and got a somewhat stronger guarantee, with language that the House “shall” consider IIJA by September 27. The rule advanced Tuesday afternoon by a 220-212 count, with all Democrats in favor.
But even this isn’t a guarantee that the infrastructure bill will pass. First, House Democrats who want to maintain the original two-track timeline can simply vote down the infrastructure bill if they feel reconciliation isn’t trending in their direction; I doubt that there are enough Republicans willing to defy Donald Trump and pass the infrastructure bill to offset liberal Democrats. Second, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chair Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who will handle the IIJA, can simply write a manager’s amendment changing any aspect of the bill, therefore moving the House and Senate into a conference to reconcile the two versions, further delaying final passage and creating more time for reconciliation to catch up. He could do that by changing a comma.

Third, as Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent explained, even if the House votes for the IIJA, Pelosi doesn’t have to send it to the president’s desk right away. The timing of when that bill goes forward is at her discretion, meaning that it’s within her power to hold off on sending the infrastructure bill along until the reconciliation package is complete. Experts in congressional procedure have verified this, and Pelosi herself did a version of it earlier this year, when she held off for a few days on sending impeachment articles to the Senate.

Indeed, House and Senate leaders are probably happy that they have a deadline now for the sprawling reconciliation bill, which would theoretically need to be ironed out and agreed to by September 27 to get done before the mandatory vote on IIJA. Previously, there wasn’t much specificity to the calendar, just a soft deadline sometime in September to get things done. Pelosi had stated a preference to finish matters by October 1. Now, with the September 27 deadline for an IIJA vote, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) can put pressure on their members to resolve their differences on what’s in the reconciliation bill and move things forward. And even if they don’t quite hit the deadline, if there’s enough progress, Pelosi has tools to keep the two-track process on, well, track.

In other words, Gottheimer and his pals identified themselves as the main impediment to the Biden agenda, drew the attention of donors and activists, ludicrously compared themselves to Abraham Lincoln, and all they got out of it was a “date certain” that’s not really much of a date certain. It was an embarrassing and fairly pointless detour.

All that said, this is a whole lot of infighting over just the process for what, at $3.5 trillion, is perhaps the largest legislative package in the history of the United States. We haven’t gotten one specific policy nailed down yet. There’s a ton of momentum to get something done, because Democrats know that redistricting will narrow their window to keep a House majority, and that their only path to keeping it lies with delivering for the American people. But the same House group kicking and screaming about the sequencing is wary of the $3.5 trillion price tag; Sinema, in the Senate, reiterated that yesterday. Reportedly, Sinema and Manchin, who has also expressed concern with the reconciliation bill, were advising the Gottheimer gang.

So there’s a long way to go, and a non-zero chance it all blows up, despite everyone recognizing that their political fates are tied to a successful outcome. Next time, the holdouts might have a better hand to play.

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