Pelosi and Sanders brace for Democratic upheaval over Biden agenda

Once the Senate passes a bipartisan infrastructure deal, Democrats’ path forward on two spending bills could get messy.

Bernie Sanders had an urgent plea at a meeting for Senate Democrats this week: We’re with you on this bipartisan bill, so you better be with us on our $3.5 trillion spending package, attendees said.

Shortly after Wednesday’s caucus meeting, Sanders called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to reinforce her position of holding back the bipartisan deal until a massive domestic bill passes the Senate, according to a source familiar with the call.

During the call with Pelosi, Sanders also relayed his support for her ahead of what is shaping up to be a massive pressure campaign from moderate Democrats and Republicans to drop her position. And on Thursday, Sanders acknowledged the challenges he will face recruiting some members of his own party to support his $3.5 trillion spending vision.

“You’ve got 50 members of the caucus, all of whom have different views and are from different states with different needs. And my job is going to be to try and work it out,” Sanders said.

The episodes underscore the tensions in the Democratic Party as President Joe Biden’s agenda haltingly moves forward. The party will sink or swim together with Democrats’ two-track plan to spend $550 billion in new money on physical infrastructure and then supplement it with their own colossal party-line spending bill on social programs, which will require all 50 Democratic votes to pass the Senate.

But there’s growing worry the complex proposal could quickly turn into a 10-car pileup.

Sanders’ concern is just one piece of the multifaceted internal conflict in the Democratic Party as it rallies around Biden’s $4 trillion domestic spending plan. Once the Senate passes the bipartisan infrastructure plan, a new conflict will immediately replace it: How long should the House wait for its Democratic-only companion bill to arrive before the pressure becomes too much to withstand?

As progressives praise Pelosi and make public threats to sink the bipartisan bill if she buckles, moderates are already urging the speaker to drop her blockade of the upper chamber’s infrastructure deal. It’s a conflict that will test the strength of Democrats’ House and Senate relations, with slim majorities spread out across a large ideological spectrum. And there’s always the danger that the longer the process drags out, the more likely one or both tracks might collapse.

“Strike while the iron’s hot,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), one of the several dozen House centrists who have been pushing for swift action on the Senate deal across the Capitol. “If you get a deal, and if it’s significant money, don’t let it sit. It does not age well.”

Some of that anxiety surfaced this week as Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) angered progressives with her concerns about the $3.5 trillion price tag for Democrats’ bill on social programs, even as the Senate prepares to send a bipartisan infrastructure bill she helped negotiate to the House. She’s one of several moderates in both chambers with outsized ability to shave down the package in the coming weeks. That bill can pass without GOP support in the 50-50 Senate, but it would need lockstep Democratic unity in the upper chamber.

And after all 50 Senate Democrats voted to move forward on the bipartisan package Wednesday, other Democrats are ready for “a little more definition about what level of cohesion we’re going to have as a caucus,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

Big bills always surface tensions between chambers of Congress. But given Democrats’ ideological divides and their slim margins, the coordination of these two packages is an unusually delicate and fraught task.

“All [Sinema] did is ensure that we don’t have enough trust unless they both move together,” said senior progressive Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.). “We’ve been very clear and Nancy Pelosi has been very clear on that.”

And though Pelosi insisted again this week the infrastructure bill is going nowhere until she has the complementary $3.5 trillion party-line spending bill in hand, too, centrists are already pressuring the California Democrat to move Biden’s infrastructure deal as quickly as she can.

In addition to moderate Democrats’ hand wringing, Republicans have accused Pelosi of holding the bill as “hostage” to the larger package that will spend trillions and raise taxes on the wealthy.

Meanwhile, senators from the progressive wing of the party are urging their House colleagues to stand firm.