Panel OKs Dems' $3.5T bill, crunch time for Biden agenda

Congress Budget

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats pushed a $3.5 trillion, 10-year bill strengthening social safety net and climate programs through the House Budget Committee on Saturday, but one Democrat voted “no,” illustrating the challenges party leaders face in winning the near unanimity they'll need to push the sprawling package through Congress.

The Democratic-dominated panel, meeting virtually, approved the measure on a near party-line vote, 20-17. Passage marked a necessary but minor checking of a procedural box for Democrats by edging it a step closer to debate by the full House. Under budget rules, the committee wasn’t allowed to significantly amend the 2,465-page measure, the product of 13 other House committees.

More important work has been happening in an opaque procession of mostly unannounced phone calls, meetings and other bargaining sessions among party leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers. President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have led a behind-the-scenes hunt for compromises to resolve internal divisions and, they hope, allow approval of the mammoth bill soon.

Pelosi told fellow Democrats Saturday that they “must” pass the social and environment package this week, along with a separate infrastructure bill and a third measure preventing a government shutdown on Friday. Her letter to colleagues underscored the pile of crucial work Congress' Democratic majority faces in coming days and seemed an effort to build urgency to resolve long-standing disputes quickly.

"The next few days will be a time of intensity," she wrote.

Moderate Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., joined all 16 Republicans on the Budget committee in opposing the legislation. His objections included one that troubles many Democrats: a reluctance to back a bill with provisions that would later be dropped by the Senate.

Many Democrats don't want to become politically vulnerable by backing language that might be controversial back home, only to see it not become law. That preference for voting only on a social and environment bill that's already a House-Senate compromise could complicate Pelosi's effort for a House vote this week.

Peters was among three Democrats who earlier this month voted against a plan favored by most in his party to lower pharmaceutical costs by letting Medicare negotiate for the prescription drugs it buys.

Party leaders have tried for weeks to resolve differences among Democrats over the package's final price tag, which seems sure to shrink. There are also disputes over which initiatives should be reshaped, among them expanded Medicare, tax breaks for children and health care, a push toward cleaner energy and higher levies on the rich and corporations.

Democrats' wafer-thin majorities in the House and Senate mean compromise is mandatory. Before the measure the Budget panel approved Saturday even reaches the House floor, it is expected to be changed to reflect whatever House-Senate accords have been reached, and additional revisions are likely.

The overall bill embodies the crux of Biden's top domestic goals. Budget panel chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., cited “decades of disinvestment” on needs like health care, education, child care and the environment as the rationale for the legislation.

“The futures of millions of Americans and their families are at stake. We can no longer afford the costs of neglect and inaction. The time to act is now," Yarmuth said.

Republicans say the