Michigan Democrats OK path forward for $3.5T spending package over GOP criticism

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Washington — The U.S. House on Tuesday approved a plan to move forward with Democrats' $3.5 trillion social spending bill in exchange for a commitment to vote on the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure deal by Sept. 27. 

Michigan's representatives in Congress voted along party lines, with all Democrats supporting the plan and all Republicans opposing it. The resolution, which also set up a vote on a voting rights bill later in the day, passed 220-212

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., walks to the chamber  at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday.

"This legislation will be the biggest and perhaps most controversial initiative that any of us have ever undertaken in our official lives," Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said Tuesday on the House floor.

"Everything we do is about the children. ... Any delay in passing the rule threatens the Build Back Better plan, voting rights reform and the bipartisan infrastructure bill. We cannot surrender our leverage for the children."

The Democratic-controlled House can now begin working on the text of its version of the $3.5 trillion bill under rules that would allow it to pass the Senate with 51 votes, rather than the 60 currently needed to overcome a filibuster — a needed procedural move for Democrats to pass legislation without Republican support in the 50-50 Senate. 

The agreement came after a late-night standoff on Monday in which a group of 10 moderate Democrats threatened to derail the rest of their caucus' plan to move ahead with central pieces of President Joe Biden's agenda. 

Pelosi and other Democratic leaders hoped to hold off on approving the bipartisan infrastructure package until they could secure the votes needed to pass the social spending bill.

Some centrist members of the party aren't yet on board with that bill or the plan to push it through without the help of Republicans. Moderates wanted Democrats to move quickly on the bipartisan infrastructure deal that passed the Senate earlier this month over concerns the larger package would be mired in negotiations for months. 

The rift illustrates the challenges ahead for congressional Democrats, who are racing to enact Biden's signature proposals before heading into a tough campaign season in 2022. Historically, the newly elected president's party fares poorly in the next midterm elections.

Democrats have a narrow majority in the House, making it easy for any defectors to throw a vote into chaos.  

"This is complicated and really difficult stuff, and that's made more difficult by the fact that our margins are thin," said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, who expressed some frustration with the 10 moderates holding out Monday.

"But the bottom line is they were willing to compromise. We all have to be willing to do that in a government that is made up of lots and lots of different people from different districts and different perspectives."

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, said she considered joining the moderate Democrats who held out for the Sept. 27 deadline. "My preference would have been to strike while the iron is hot and vote on the bipartisan infrastructure deal" immediately, "but I think this is a decent compromise," she said Tuesday. 

Slotkin said she'll reserve her judgment on the partisan reconciliation bill until she can see the full bill text: "I'm willing to consider it if it's truly transformative for my district and for Michigan."

Setting a firm timeline for passing the bipartisan bill risks compromising Democrat leadership’s strategy — if the reconciliation bill isn’t ready by the end of September and they pass the bipartisan bill alone, they lose leverage over centrist members of their party to pass the partisan package.

Progressive Democrats have already said they will continue to insist on passing both bills at the same time, regardless of the new deadline.

Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, said the new agreement doesn’t create the risk of decoupling the bills.

“It's sort of like saying, ‘The Olympics are on this date, what if you're not ready to do your pole vault?’ Well, I'm going to be there. And I'm going to run up there and stick my pole in that little thing and jump,” Levin said. “That’s the way we have to look at this: We have a job to do. We have plenty of time.”

Michigan's Republican members lampooned both the process and the legislation itself as reckless and divisive. 

"The Democrats have a spending problem," said Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Bruce Township. "Can someone show me where that trillion-dollar money tree is? Because I don't see it."

Democrats plan to pay for the new spending largely by raising taxes on corporations and wealthy Americans, but they haven't yet agreed on specifics. It's another source of division ahead within the party.

Taxes wouldn't account for all of the funding necessary, however, and the Senate-approved version didn't include a measure to raise the debt ceiling. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen advised Congress to reach a bipartisan agreement to do so, and warned that failure could "cause irreparable harm to the U.S. economy."

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the U.S. government won’t be able to pay its outstanding debts beginning in the fall, probably October or November, if no action is taken to raise the debt ceiling.

As part of the compromise struck Tuesday, Democrats used a procedure to "deem and pass" a resolution that allows them to begin work on the reconciliation package without having written legislation. The Senate approved a general framework earlier this month, directing specific amounts of money to different committees.  

That move is akin to a "Trojan horse," said Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton.

"This is the height of arrogance and cynicism about the voters of their districts, that they could be duped into believing that these Democrats supported something that they were fully behind," he said. "It's so convoluted."

The $3.5 trillion plan will now head to House and Senate committees, where lawmakers will flesh out the legislation. Pelosi said Tuesday she hopes to pass both the bipartisan and partisan bills by Oct. 1 — an ambitious timeline for lawmakers returning next week from an August recess. 

The current highway spending bill is set to expire at the end of the month, and Pelosi said she plans for the bipartisan infrastructure plan to "expeditiously" replace that. 

The $1 trillion infrastructure plan was brokered between Biden and a group of bipartisan senators and includes $1 billion for the federal Great Lakes cleanup program, $7.5 billion for a program to support building out an electric vehicle charging network and provisions to strengthen "Buy American" rules.

It also has a massive infusion of funding for transportation infrastructure, including $110 billion for roads and bridges, $39 billion for transit and $66 billion for rail. There’s funding for water infrastructure, including $15 billion to remove lead service pipes; as well as funding for airports, ports and broadband expansions.

The reconciliation package would aim to enact the rest of the president's agenda. It would create a universal prekindergarten program, set spending limits on childcare for low- and middle-income families, raise wages for child care workers and more. 

It would implement a free two-year community college program, create a 12-week federal paid medical leave benefit, extend the child tax credit, expand Medicare benefits, invest in clean energy and green manufacturing.