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The Main Obstacle For Biden's Spending Plans? Members Of His Own Party


President Biden's agenda is at risk on Capitol Hill. And yet again, there are members of his own party who are threatening to stand in the way. House Democrats are struggling to unify behind how big and how bold they want to go in reshaping the role of the federal government in people's everyday lives - also split over how much they want to spend doing that. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is following all this. She's here now.

Hey, Kelsey.


KELLY: Just remind everybody who maybe got lost in this hot, long summer...

SNELL: Easy to do.

KELLY: ...Where is Congress in the process of considering President Biden's spending plans?

SNELL: Right now leaders are trying to get Democrats on the same page to move forward with everything, from infrastructure to things like free community college and child care and addressing some elements of climate change. You know, the Senate already voted to advance both the $1 trillion bipartisan bill and a separate framework to spend another $3.5 trillion later this year. And the house came back early from a scheduled break to vote on this and get started on the process of writing that bigger spending package. But Democrats, like you said, are split on this issue. Nine moderate Democrats want to vote on the standalone bipartisan bill right now. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has insisted that she will not bring up that bill until after the Senate passes the broader spending package. So it's all kind of intertwined.

KELLY: All right. So there's a sequencing issue there.

SNELL: Right.

KELLY: But if they all agree, Kelsey, they are going to vote on the bipartisan bill eventually. Does the timing or the process really matter?

SNELL: In this case, it does because it's kind of one of those familiar tales the Democrats have been facing since they took the House in 2018. They won their majority by pitching themselves as a big-tent party that accepts fiscal moderates, centrists and progressives all together. And they say they're all aligned on their shared principles. Except it isn't really that easy once they get together and actually try to write and pass legislation. What Pelosi's doing here is she's trying to satisfy both the progressive wing of her party and the moderate wing by saying that both of their priorities have to move together or nothing moves at all. And she kind of upped the ante recently by asking Democrats to advance this budget bill and the infrastructure bill and a voting rights bill all at once. The goal is to make it really hard for Democrats to vote no right now.

KELLY: All right. Although, the big question that Republicans and some moderate Democrats are raising is this price tag - $3.5 trillion - and if that is just too much - you know, worries that it could drive up inflation, that it will undermine the economic recovery. What is the answer from Pelosi and other Democrats to those questions?

SNELL: Yeah, they're basically framing it as part of the shared values that Democrats ran on that I mentioned before, that they were elected on. They said that they wanted to address things like climate change, equity in the economy and support for children and families. Leaders are framing this budget resolution as a chance to do all of that. So that - one of the typical criticisms shared by Republicans and some of those skeptical Democrats is that Congress needs to balance the budget and worry about the deficit, not just spending. House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth addressed that criticism today, basically saying the federal government has the ability to spend whatever it needs.


JOHN YARMUTH: The federal government is not a family, and it's not a small business, and it's not a local government, and it's not a state government. We can spend whatever we need to spend in the interest of serving the American people.

SNELL: And he made an argument you're hearing from a lot of Democrats, which is Republicans get upset about debt and deficit when they're not in power and then vote on things like spending on a border wall and cutting taxes when they are in power.

KELLY: Sounds like the too-long-don't-read version is it's going to be a really messy fall.

SNELL: It really is. And because not only do they have to do all of this, they want to do all this by October. And at the same time, they need to increase the debt limit. They need to pass basic government funding to keep the government open. And it's just shaping up to be one of those times when they're going to be fighting about fiscal things on and on.

KELLY: Thank you, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: NPR's Kelsey Snell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.