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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Congressional Democrats on Sunday hurtled toward a political showdown over President Joe Biden’s roughly $4 trillion economic agenda.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Congressional Democrats on Sunday hurtled toward a political showdown over President Joe Biden’s roughly $4 trillion economic agenda. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats on Sunday hurtled toward a political showdown over President Joe Biden's roughly $4 trillion economic agenda, as long-simmering feuds among the party's liberal and moderate lawmakers threatened to scuttle a series of critical House votes as soon as this week.

With the chamber set to return to work Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sought to make the case for swift action: She stressed that Democrats needed to adopt their packages to improve the nation's infrastructure and overhaul federal education, health care and tax laws, describing the two legislative efforts as "transformative."

"Overwhelmingly the entirety of our caucus, except for a few whose judgment I respect, support the vision of Joe Biden. And we will make progress on it this week," Pelosi told ABC's "This Week."

But both proposals remain unsettled politically even a day before the House is set to start considering them, essentially thrusting the whole of Biden's agenda into political limbo.

Centrist Democrats have pushed most forcefully for a roughly $1 trillion bipartisan proposal to improve the nation's roads, bridges, pipes, ports and internet connections, after securing from Pelosi an earlier commitment to begin debating the measure on Sept. 27. But the timeline has angered liberals, many of whom have said for months they would not support the infrastructure bill until the House first adopts a second, roughly $3.5 trillion plan that raises taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations to pay for a slew of new federal safety net programs.

The Democratic divisions have put Pelosi in a political bind, as she looks to satisfy two disparate party factions in the midst of a fast-ticking clock. Adding to her challenge, lawmakers also have only five days left to adopt a measure to fund the government, preventing a shutdown in the middle of a pandemic.

The House speaker still tried to project some confidence on Sunday, stressing she believes the House can finish its work on time — and "pass the bill this week" that improves the nation's infrastructure. In the same breath, however, she also told ABC she would never bring a measure to the floor "that doesn't have the votes," reflecting the vast uncertainty in the days ahead.

Pelosi also acknowledged that the $3.5 trillion tax-and-spending package is likely to be reduced in size, describing its whittling down as "self-evident." Yet she dismissed the idea that the "few people not in agreement" evince a party that is divided, insisting even Democrats "who want a smaller number support the vision of the president."

The legislative frenzy in the House comes as Biden himself increasingly acknowledges the political challenge in enacting an agenda he has described in historic terms since the spring. Speaking at the White House on Friday, the president said the policymaking process on Capitol Hill is "just going to take some time," suggesting at one point it could lapse into next year — before shifting course and saying it could still occur more quickly.

No matter the timeline, though, the task ahead for Democrats is gargantuan — requiring them to resolve policy differences that source back to the very election that helped them secure their narrow Washington majorities in the first place.

The current stalemate stems in part from an agreement between Pelosi and a group of nine centrists led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J. The bloc held up the House earlier this year in an attempt to secure a swift vote on infrastructure reform, resulting in a commitment from the speaker to begin considering the bill on Sept. 27.

The public-works proposal puts forward massive new investments to improve the nation's roads, bridges, pipes, ports and internet connections, delivering on long-sought promises of politicians past, including former president Donald Trump. The package cleared the Senate on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis in August, and a House vote as soon as this week would send it to Biden's desk for a signature.

Appearing on CNN, Gottheimer on Sunday stressed he feels "very good" about getting a vote on the measure this week, citing its urgency at a time when his region is still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.

"When it does come to the floor, we will have the votes," he said.

But the bill is at risk of defeat in the chamber. Republicans have mobilized to prevent Biden from attaining a victory, even if it benefits their home districts, and even some Democrats have taken aim as part of a broader fight over the president's agenda. Liberal-leaning lawmakers have warned Pelosi for months against bringing it for a vote before the House finishes work on another, roughly $3.5 trillion spending package, a threat that Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, essentially repeated on Sunday.

"Our point is just we're ready to vote for both ... and we will vote for both, but we need to actually get the ($3.5 trillion bill) done," she told CNN in a separate interview.

The still-forming, $3.5 trillion proposal would expand Medicare, invest new sums to combat climate change, and boost a slew of tax credits and other programs that help families, students and children in need. Democrats intend to pass it using a process known as reconciliation, which allows them to avoid a GOP filibuster in the Senate.

But the maneuver only works if Democrats remain united, an increasingly difficult task given the objections raised by Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who have sought to lessen its price tag considerably. Talks between the Democratic factions continued with the White House over the weekend, days after Biden personally convened lawmakers to hammer out an agreement over its spending scope and the tax hikes lawmakers have included to pay for it.

House Democrats this weekend still took the procedural steps necessary to tee it up on the chamber floor. A panel of lawmakers led by Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., advanced it to the next stage on Saturday, though the generally routine process further exposed divisions among Democrats' own ranks.

One panel Democrat, Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., voted against its advance. Peters previously has opposed its inclusion of prescription drug pricing reforms, siding with the pharmaceutical industry in arguing Democrats' current plan could curtail cutting-edge research. His stance offered a sign of the stakes Pelosi and the rest of the party face in navigating a delicate legislative process with so few votes to spare.

The tensions set the stage for a frenetic next few days for Democratic lawmakers, who also face the added challenge of staving off a government shutdown. A shutdown will occur on Friday if members of Congress don't pass a new bill to fund federal agencies. If a shutdown occurs, there will be a significant interruption in government operations and the pay of hundreds of thousands of workers will be frozen in the middle of a pandemic.

Democrats have pledged to pass a spending bill before that deadline, but their ability to do so depends on Republicans supporting such a measure before funding lapses Thursday night. GOP lawmakers are expected to scuttle a related measure in the Senate that would prevent a shutdown because it is coupled with a related plan to raise the country's borrowing limit — a must-pass item that Republicans oppose in an attempt to undermine Biden's economic agenda.

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