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ImageCredit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times
Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a centrist Democrat, said Thursday that he could not support a social safety net bill of more than $1.5 trillion, less than half the size of the package that President Biden and Democratic leaders have been trying to push through Congress.
In comments to reporters outside the Capitol, Mr. Manchin laid out publicly for the first time the general outlines of what he would be willing to support, putting detail to what he has said for weeks — that he could not vote for a package anywhere near the size of the sprawling $3.5 trillion plan Democrats sketched out in their budget blueprint.
Mr. Manchin’s relative silence on what specific proposals he would eventually support has frustrated liberals who have feared he would ultimately oppose an ambitious plan to expand health care, education, paid leave and anti-climate change programs, coupled with an array of tax increases on the wealthy and corporations.
It was unclear whether going public with those details would help assuage or further anger liberal Democrats, who have threatened to oppose a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package on track for a House vote on Thursday without substantial progress toward passing the second, far larger bill.
Still, they were the clearest Mr. Manchin has publicly been about his willingness to support the social policy plan, which Democrats plan to push through using a fast-track process known as budget reconciliation that shields fiscal legislation from a filibuster. Democrats are trying to pass the package over united Republican opposition, meaning they cannot spare even one vote in the evenly divided Senate.
Mr. Manchin spoke out about his position after an agreement enshrining it, signed by both him and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, leaked out on Thursday. The document, dated July 28, says that Mr. Manchin will not support any plan that lacks conditions for any new spending, accommodations for fossil tax credits and natural gas, or does not devote any revenue exceeding $1.5 trillion to deficit reduction.
The agreement, obtained by Politico and confirmed by two people with knowledge of it, said that Mr. Manchin “does not guarantee that he will vote for the final reconciliation legislation if it exceeds the conditions outlined in this agreement.”
Mr. Schumer, who signed the agreement as he was working to persuade Mr. Manchin to support the budget blueprint, also appears to have scrawled “I will try to dissuade Joe on many of these,” underneath his signature.
On Thursday, his spokesman emphasized that Mr. Schumer did not consider it binding.
“As the document notes, Leader Schumer never agreed to any of the conditions Senator Manchin laid out; he merely acknowledged where Senator Manchin was on the subject at the time,” said Justin Goodman, the spokesman. “As the document reads, Senator Manchin did not rule out voting for a reconciliation bill that exceeded the ideas he outlined, and Leader Schumer made clear that he would work to convince Sen. Manchin to support a final reconciliation bill — as he has doing been for weeks.”
Credit…Jason Andrew for The New York Times
Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday vowed to push ahead with a House vote on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that passed the Senate with bipartisan support, driving Democrats toward a showdown between moderate supporters of the bill and liberals who have said they will bring it down without progress on a separate social policy measure.
She did assure Americans that parts of the government would not run out of money after midnight, as the Senate moved toward passing legislation to keep funding flowing into early December.
Democrats are juggling four consequential tasks on the final day of the current fiscal year: keeping the government open past midnight, ensuring it can pay its debts, securing the infrastructure bill and drafting a climate change and social safety net bill that the speaker called the “culmination” of her congressional career.
The first task is nearing completion. The Senate was on track to approve the stopgap spending bill to keep the government funded, sending it to the House for final passage Thursday afternoon.
The rest is a mess. Liberal House members were meeting with the speaker at midday even as they continued to say they would oppose passage of the infrastructure bill. They are holding out for ironclad assurances that the Senate can pass an ambitious social policy bill that expands child care and early childhood education, creates a paid family and medical leave program and begins to tackle climate change, to name only a few provisions.
But Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, emphatically wrote Wednesday that he could not support legislation “designed to re-engineer the social and economic fabric of this nation and vengefully tax for the sake of wishful spending.” In an evenly divided Senate, that amounted to a veto threat of the current $3.5 trillion proposal, which uses large tax increases on the wealthy and corporations to pay for an ambitious array of social programs.
Ms. Pelosi, speaking at her weekly news conference, stayed relentlessly optimistic, speaking of the common ground she shares with Mr. Manchin, a fellow Italian American and Catholic.
“Let me tell you about negotiating: You cannot tire,” she said.
Both the infrastructure and social policy bills are major priorities for President Biden, who invested ample political capital in the infrastructure compromise and has staked his presidency on enactment of a transformational social policy package.
Despite repeated entreaties from Mr. Biden and top White House officials, two crucial Democratic holdouts — Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Mr. Manchin — have refused to specify their bottom line in negotiations. White House officials had hoped to extract a firm public commitment from them this week to eventually vote for the social policy measure, but their efforts have so far proved unsuccessful.
Instead, Mr. Manchin doubled down on his opposition to the $3.5 trillion package in its current form, issuing the blistering statement late Wednesday in which he criticized the ambitions of the bill as the “definition of fiscal insanity.” He did not rule out supporting a slimmed-down version, suggesting he would be willing to reverse some elements of Republicans’ 2017 tax law and expand some social programs — but only if they were subject to income thresholds to ensure federal aid only went to those most in need.
White House officials declined to discuss the details of meetings and discussions with senators, which have intensified in recent days as some Democrats have grumbled that the president needed to play a bigger role in ensuring the success of his agenda.
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the White House, rejected the criticism, saying Mr. Biden was doing precisely what he needed to.
“He knows how to make his case, he knows how to count votes, and he knows how to deliver for the American middle class,” Mr. Bates said.
But it was unclear, with Republican leaders in the House urging their members to oppose the bipartisan infrastructure bill, whether the legislation could overcome liberal defections on Thursday.
On Wednesday night, Ms. Pelosi could be seen working the phones from the stands of Nationals Stadium near the Capitol, where Republicans and Democrats were facing off for charity in the annual Congressional Baseball Game. Gesticulating as she spoke into a mobile phone, Ms. Pelosi appeared to be having an intense conversation as she fought to keep the infrastructure measure on track.
Mr. Biden also made an appearance at the game, where he chatted with Ms. Pelosi and Democrats, visited the Republican dugout and handed out ice cream bars.
Credit…Patrick T. Fallon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
In a pivotal week, in a make-or-break stretch for President Biden’s domestic agenda, congressional Democrats are trying to assemble a puzzle of four jagged pieces that may or may not fit together.
Making them work as a whole is critical for the party’s agenda and political prospects, and how quickly they can assemble the puzzle will determine whether the government suffers another costly and embarrassing shutdown — or, worse yet, a first-ever default on its debt that could precipitate a global economic crisis.
Here are all the moving parts.
Piece 1: Government funding.
At a second past midnight on Thursday, the parts of the government that operate under the discretion of Congress’s annual spending process will run out of money if a stopgap spending bill does not pass. Oct. 1 is the beginning of the fiscal year, and with larger issues dominating their attention, the Democratic House and Senate have not completed any of the annual appropriations bills to fund the Departments of Defense, Transportation, Health and Human Services, State and Homeland Security, to name a few.
House and Senate leaders were working Wednesday to finalize legislation that would keep federal funding flowing into December to allow more time for the rest of the spending bills to be completed.
Piece 2: The debt limit.
Raising the debt limit is akin to paying off your credit card bill at the end of the month, because a higher borrowing ceiling allows the Treasury to pay creditors, contractors and agencies money that was already extracted from them in Treasury bonds and notes or contracts. It is not for future obligations.
Republicans have made it clear that they intend to filibuster an ordinary bill to raise the debt ceiling, as they did on Monday. For Democrats to do so unilaterally, they would most likely have to use a budget process called reconciliation that shields fiscal measures from a filibuster.
Doing so is a complex and time-consuming affair. It all has to be done in the next two to three weeks, to beat the rapidly approaching “X date” when the government defaults. Janet Yellen, the Treasury secretary, told Congress on Tuesday that the deadline is Oct. 18.
Piece 3: Infrastructure.
In August, with rare bipartisan swagger, the Senate passed a $1 trillion bill to build or fortify roads, bridges, tunnels, transit and rural broadband networks. The 69 “yes” votes included Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, and 18 others from his party. Then it got more complicated.
Pressing for a quick vote on the bill, nine conservative-leaning Democrats in the House threatened to withhold their votes for the party’s $3.5 trillion budget blueprint until the Senate-passed infrastructure bill cleared their chamber. But now liberals in the House are threatening to withhold their votes for the infrastructure measure until the budget blueprint has successfully made its way through reconciliation.
Piece 4: Social policy reconciliation.
Democrats’ exceedingly ambitious social policy bill, which Mr. Biden calls his “Build Back Better” plan, is packed with longstanding party priorities. The House has drafted a 2,465-page version that includes a huge array of programs to combat climate change, the extension of a generous child tax credit, universal prekindergarten, greatly expanded access to community college, increased resources for elder care and paid leave, and a Medicare expansion to cover vision, hearing and dental care — all paid for by trillions of dollars in tax increases on corporations and the wealthy.
Ms. Pelosi had hoped to put it to a vote this week, but she faced two problems: As of now, Democrats most likely do not have the votes, and Senate Democratic leaders have yet to produce a detailed bill that can draw the support of every member of their caucus.
Several conservative-leaning Democrats in both chambers, including Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have said they cannot support the plan as proposed. And because Republicans have made it clear they are unified in their opposition, Democrats cannot afford to lose even one vote from their party in the Senate and can afford to lose as few as three votes in the House.
Mr. Biden has been negotiating with the holdouts to determine what they could support. But for now, the lack of agreement on the sprawling plan is blocking its progress — and leaving the fate of the infrastructure measure uncertain as well.
Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times
The Senate on Thursday rejected a Republican effort to use a spending bill needed to keep the government open past midnight to curtail assistance to Afghans who were quickly evacuated to the United States as American troops withdrew from their country last month.
The proposal by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas was just one of a series of skirmishes over a bill that would extend federal funding into early December and provide emergency funding for the resettlement of Afghan refugees and disaster recovery. The legislation is expected to pass later Thursday with bipartisan support, but first, Republicans have demanded votes on several proposed changes.
Mr. Cotton’s proposal failed on a 50-to-50 vote, along party lines. Under Senate rules, a tied vote on a proposed change to a bill is not enough to amend the legislation.
The amendment would have cut off aid for things such as housing, food and medical benefits after March 31, 2023 for Afghans who were granted parole to quickly enter the United States because of the urgent humanitarian crisis.
Mr. Cotton has argued that terminating the benefits is reasonable, considering that Afghans who received special visas for helping the American military may only receive such benefits for eight months.
The amendment also would have cut from the bill language that would have waived certain requirements for obtaining driver’s licenses or identification cards, making it easier for the Afghans to get them. Those who were granted humanitarian parole lack some of the documentation required under the REAL ID Act, which was created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to enhance security on commercial airlines.
His amendment also attempted to force the Department of Homeland Security to work more quickly to process Afghan asylum applications, moving up the deadline to conduct a first interview with an applicant to 15 days instead of 45 days, and required the department to make a decision within 150 days of the application’s filing.
Before the vote, Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, said the amendment would ensure Afghan evacuees are “properly vetted.” But Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, argued the amendment was unnecessary, saying the evacuees were already being properly vetted and it merely blocked badly needed benefits for those in dire need of help.
Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, touted the bill’s provisions to help Afghan evacuees in a speech on the Senate floor before the vote. He urged his colleagues to “strongly oppose” Mr. Cotton’s proposal and other amendments offered by the Republicans, warning that accepting any could slow down the process and result in a government shutdown.
“It provides critical assistance to Afghan refugees who fled the Taliban in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan,” he said of the funding bill. “Many of those refugees worked with American forces and helped us.”
Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
Amtrak would see its biggest infusion of money since its inception a half-century ago. Climate resilience programs would receive their largest burst of government spending ever. The nation’s power grid would be upgraded to the tune of $73 billion.
The sprawling, $1 trillion bill that the Senate passed last month — a bipartisan deal that is the product of months of negotiating and years of pent-up ambitions to repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure — would amount to the most substantial government expenditure on the aging public works system since 2009. It includes $550 billion in new funds and the renewal of an array of programs otherwise scheduled to expire at the end of September.
It is also stuffed with pet projects and priorities that touch on nearly every facet of American life, including the most obscure, like a provision to allow blood transport vehicles to use highway car pool lanes to bypass traffic when fresh vials are on board and another to fully fund a federal grant program to promote “pollinator-friendly practices” near roads and highways. (Price tag for the latter: $2 million per year.)
The measure represents a crucial piece of President Biden’s economic agenda, and the agreement that gave rise to it was a major breakthrough in his quest for a bipartisan compromise. But it was also notable for the concessions Mr. Biden was forced to make to strike the deal.
For example, the legislation includes $73 billion to modernize the nation’s electricity grid, which energy analysts said would lay the groundwork for pivoting the nation off fossil fuels. But it contains only a fraction of the money Mr. Biden requested for major environmental initiatives and extends a lifeline to natural gas and nuclear energy, provisions that have angered House progressives.
Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times
Two centrist Democrats in the Senate have balked at the price tag of Democrats’ ambitious $3.5 trillion social policy and climate change bill. Here’s a look at the two lawmakers and how they have so far been wielding the power of their must-have votes, even as President Biden tries to win their support for his agenda.
Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona
Ms. Sinema, a onetime school social worker and Green Party-aligned activist, vaulted through the ranks of Arizona politics by running as a zealous bipartisan willing to break with her fellow Democrats. She counts John McCain, the Republican senator who died in 2018, as a hero, and has found support from independent voters and moderate suburban women in a state where Maverick is practically its own party.
But now, Ms. Sinema is facing a growing political revolt at home from the voters who once counted themselves among her most devoted supporters. Many of the state’s most fervent Democrats now see her as an obstructionist whose refusal to sign on to the sweeping bill has helped imperil the party’s agenda.
Ms. Sinema has been enigmatic about her concerns with key elements of the agenda and has largely declined to issue public comments.
On Wednesday afternoon, she and a team from the White House huddled in her office for more than two hours on another day of what a spokesman for Ms. Sinema called good-faith negotiations.
A breakthrough on the legislation could quell much of the criticism and burnish Ms. Sinema’s image as a deal-maker who shepherded a related bipartisan infrastructure bill through the Senate. But liberals on Capitol Hill do not trust that she is actually willing to support the broader spending package.
Joe Manchin III of West Virginia
In a lengthy and scathing statement issued Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Manchin reiterated his opposition to the proposal as currently constituted, saying it amounted to “fiscal insanity.”
“While I am hopeful that common ground can be found that would result in another historic investment in our nation, I cannot — and will not — support trillions in spending or an all-or-nothing approach that ignores the brutal fiscal reality our nation faces,” Mr. Manchin wrote, denouncing an approach that he said would “vengefully tax for the sake of wishful spending.”
He said he wanted to set income thresholds for many of the social program expansions Democrats have proposed, and suggested he would be open to undoing some components of the 2017 tax law.
A former high school quarterback who friends say still relishes being at the center of the action, Mr. Manchin, 73, is something of a unicorn in today’s Congress. As a pro-coal and anti-abortion Democrat, he reflects a less-homogenized era when regionalism was as significant as partisanship and senators were more individual actors than predictable votes for their caucus.
And unlike Sinema, because of his state’s conservative bent, Mr. Manchin is less likely than many Democrats to pay a political price for opposing Mr. Biden’s agenda.
He’s the only lawmaker standing in the way of an all-Republican congressional delegation in West Virginia, a state that former President Donald J. Trump carried by nearly 40 points last year.
Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times
Paring back the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion domestic policy package will involve difficult choices for a party fractured by mistrust and competing priorities. But in a package that is intended to shape every facet of American life, including public education, health care and the environment, there is room for agreement, even in a thinly divided Congress.
Here are three possible scenarios for how to structure a final deal.
A slightly scaled-back plan that uses budget tricks to hold down the cost.
Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, initially urged his colleagues to embrace spending as much as $6 trillion over 10 years as they began drafting the bill.
To narrow the scope to its current price tag of $3.5 trillion over 10 years, aides said, Mr. Sanders and his colleagues employed budget gimmicks like setting earlier end dates on programs or narrowing their proposed size to lower their cost.
A lowest-common-denominator $900 billion package that extends existing health and child care benefits.
The easiest fallback for Democrats might be to extend the generous tax credits and other benefits created for a single year in the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief law, known as the American Rescue Plan. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog group, that skinny option would total $900 billion, still more than President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan, which, when it passed, was considered huge.
A middle-ground $1.5 trillion bill that invests huge resources in programs to combat climate change.
Progressive Democrats have indicated that they will not vote for the $1 trillion infrastructure bill without ensuring passage of the social welfare and climate change bill. To pass the former without the latter could actually make global warming worse, they argue.
To answer those concerns, Democrats could include the social welfare components of the lowest-common-denominator option — extending the temporary benefits of the American Rescue Plan — while also going big on climate change.
Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times
The budget reconciliation process allows Congress to advance certain spending and tax bills on a simple majority vote, freeing lawmakers in the Senate from the 60-vote threshold most legislation must meet to be considered. Democrats are aiming to use the process to pass the sweeping $3.5 trillion social safety net and climate change measure, which carries much of President Biden’s agenda, in the face of united Republican opposition.
The process begins with a budget resolution, which establishes a blueprint for federal spending and directs congressional committees to write bills to achieve certain policy results, setting spending and revenues over a certain amount of time. Its name refers to the process of reconciling existing laws with those directives. Here are some key things to know about the legislative maneuver.
The process is subject to strict rules that limit what can be included.
While reconciliation allows senators to scale procedural and scheduling hurdles, it is also subject to strict limits that could constrain the scope of any pandemic relief package Democrats seek to pass.
In the Senate, the “Byrd Rule,” established by former Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, bars extraneous provisions, including any measure that does not change revenues or spending, affects the Social Security program or increases the deficit after a certain period of time set in the budget resolution. It is intended to ensure that the reconciliation process cannot be abused to jam through any unrelated provision.
The rule’s name lends itself to a number of bird-related puns commonly used to describe the stages of the reconciliation process. There is the “Byrd bath,” when the Senate parliamentarian scrubs and analyzes a bill for any provision that violates the rule if a senator raises a concern about a violation. Anything that does not survive the scrutiny is known as a “Byrd dropping,” and is removed from the legislation before it can advance.
Vice President Kamala Harris could also overrule the parliamentarian, but that has not been done since 1975.
The process is in motion, but the legislative math is proving tough for Democrats.
A budget blueprint on the social spending and climate bill was advanced in August and committees have been working on drafting the reconciliation legislation, but key centrist Democrats in the Senate who have balked at the $3.5 trillion price tag have brought the process to an impasse as party leaders try to negotiate a compromise.
Because Republicans have made it clear they are unified in their opposition, Democrats cannot afford to lose even one vote from their party in the Senate. In the House, the math is almost as challenging; if every member voted, Democrats could afford to lose only three of their members and still pass the legislation.
Credit…Samuel Corum for The New York Times
Lawmakers have been playing a lot of political hardball on Capitol Hill given the multiple crises consuming Washington, but it was actual hardball that drew Democrats and Republicans to Nationals Park on Wednesday night for the annual congressional baseball charity game.
The game provided a brief moment of camaraderie amid deep partisan division and high drama in Congress, as leaders rushed to try to head off a government shutdown and a potential federal default while Democrats toiled to bridge bitter rifts among them over a huge piece of social policy.
It also offered yet another venue for the Democrats to try to corral votes for a $1 trillion infrastructure bill slated for a House vote later Thursday, which currently appears far short of the support needed to pass given liberal defections.
President Biden — a former participant in his Senate days — made an extended appearance, even mingling in the Republican dugout with his political foes. Speaker Nancy Pelosi was also on hand to do what she usually does — exhort her fellow Democrats to deliver a win. They did not in this case, falling to the Republican lineup 13-12 in a close game that Ms. Pelosi must hope is not a harbinger for the tough votes she is facing.
The president drew a few boos from the Republican side of the stands, but was welcomed in the party’s dugout for photos and ribbing even though the red-uniformed G.O.P. lawmakers oppose almost everything on his legislative agenda. He handed out ice cream bars whose wrappers bore the presidential seal and took calls as he watched the game.
Ms. Pelosi could be seen on a telecast of the game feverishly working her own phone from the stands, with a crucial intramural Democratic showdown looming on the infrastructure measure, which progressives have threatened to sink until they get a vote on a $3.5 trillion social policy package that carries most of their priorities.
The play of the night, however, was an actual out-of-the-park home run by Republican Representative Greg Steube of Florida, an impressive feat in a game played by a bunch of amateurs well past their playing primes in most cases.
The big question after the game was how Ms. Pelosi and her party would fare when their moment at the legislative plate arrived.