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Open warfare breaks out between liberals and moderates over Biden agenda

By Clare Foran and Manu Raju, CNN

Top Democrats are warning that President Joe Biden’s agenda is entering a decisive moment on Capitol Hill as leaders struggle to lock down a deal on a major economic package and tensions within the party reach a boiling point.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi informed her Democratic colleagues Monday night that the price tag for that massive economic package will not exceed the amount passed in the Senate — an important point for moderate House Democrats, who had worried the bill could be pared back in the Senate and they’d be forced to vote on a more controversial bill in their chamber.

Earlier Monday, the speaker had told fellow top Democrats that the next 48 hours are crucial to determining whether a deal can come together quickly on the package, according to Rep. John Yarmuth, the chair of the House Budget Committee.

He said the speaker made clear that major decisions have to be made on taxes, health care and the scope of the bill — as intensive talks continue between House and Senate Democrats and the White House.

“Basically, everything’s sort of dependent what happens in the next 48 hours,” said Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat.

Yarmuth said that in the best case scenario, the House Budget Committee likely wouldn’t act until next Monday, which wouldn’t set up floor action until the end of next week. That would be after a key September 27 deadline for the House vote on a separate $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Progressives have vowed not to vote in favor of the bipartisan bill unless the far larger economic package with a price tag of up to $3.5 trillion moves in tandem. But that package has become bogged down over disputes among Democrats over the cost as well as policy details, leaving both priorities in jeopardy.

“I have promised Members that we would not have House Members vote for a bill with a higher topline than would be passed by the Senate,” Pelosi wrote in her letter to House Democrats Monday, noting that the bill may be further narrowed by Senate budget rules.

Progressive Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York told CNN on Monday that she is a “no” on the $1 trillion infrastructure package on September 27 if the House and Senate have not approved the larger, Democratic-only economic package by then. But there’s virtually no chance the larger bill — which progressives want pegged at $3.5 trillion — can pass both chambers by next Monday given the divisions within the party and constraints about moving through the legislative process quickly.

Ocasio-Cortez did not hold back in her criticism of moderates within her own party, saying, “You have a very small destructive group of members who want to hold the entire country’s agenda hostage for an arbitrary date. And this is not, it’s not representative of the agenda of the caucus, it’s not representative of the agenda of the President, and we need to stay focused on the original, on the original process that allowed us to move forward in the first place.”

The congresswoman added: “And so, you know, I would hope that we figure out something in that time. But once again, I’m more than happy to vote for the infrastructure bill, if we’re able to figure out a way to bring it up in, in a concurrent fashion with reconciliation.”

Asked about the prediction by moderates that the liberals are bluffing, she said: “Well, I’m happy to show my cards.”

“She knows we are not bluffing,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, referring to Pelosi. The Washington state Democrat said that if the September 27 vote on the infrastructure bill happens, a majority of lawmakers in the caucus — which has around 100 members — will vote against it if the larger economic package has not passed Congress.

Jayapal said there will not be enough Republican votes in favor of the bipartisan bill to offset a deficit of Democratic votes. “Even if they had that number of Republicans to go on the bipartisan bill, we would still have enough votes to defeat it,” she said.

And Republicans are making clear they won’t be the ones to bail out Democrats if they come up short because of a progressive revolt.

“The sense early on was, if it was the Squad, we could overcome that, if it was a jailbreak beyond that on the left, that it would be a challenge,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is opposed to the bipartisan bill and said he doesn’t think it’s a “good vote,” told CNN he doesn’t know how many House Republicans will support the measure but was doubtful it would be very many.

Fitzpatrick conceded that if GOP leaders end up whipping against the bill — which former President Donald Trump also opposes — it could influence “some” members in the Republican conference.

The challenge facing congressional Democratic leaders all along has been whether they can hold together the competing ideological factions within their party to pass both the bipartisan bill and the far more sweeping legislation that Democrats hope to pass on a party line vote using a process known as reconciliation to sidestep the Senate filibuster. The larger package is set to address a wide range of issues from health care to the climate crisis.

“I would say we’re at a critical moment. This week is critical,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, told reporters on Monday. “This is the key week.”

Leadership has been trying to move both priorities in tandem, a goal that looks ever more difficult as major sticking points remain.

Pelosi would not say on Monday when asked if there was any wiggle room on the September 27 date for a vote on the Senate infrastructure bill.

“We’re just moving in a forward direction. I’m very pleased with the hard work that the members have done. And it’s just a question now of finalizing, and everything’s on schedule,” she said.

Some Democrats have floated the idea that the September 27 deadline could be pushed back as it looks increasingly possible the vote could fail if it proceeds as planned, given that the larger economic package has not yet been finalized.

“Sometimes you have to kind of stop the clock to get to the goal. We’ll do what’s necessary to get there,” Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.

Asked if the date could be moved, Florida Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a prominent House moderate, told CNN, “We need to take whatever time we need to get it right.”

Major divisions remain

As Democratic leaders try to unite their party, key moderates who are resistant to passing the $3.5 trillion package that liberals want to see enacted are showing no signs of backing down.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, an influential moderate who has said he does not support a $3.5 trillion price tag, made clear in an interview with CNN on Monday that he wants Democratic leaders to slow things down dramatically.

“You know what I said? I said let’s wait and see whatever we need. We need to have a good idea. The main thing is inflation, if it’s transitory or not, you have a better idea, you know, once we get into it a little bit longer, but right now inflation is still high, and now we understand that natural gas prices are higher than they’ve ever been, in West Virginia, too, and the people who end up paying the highest is the ones that can’t afford it. So we got to worry about all these things,” he said.

The West Virginian has floated a potential topline number for the larger package of between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion. Manchin again declined to say on Monday whether he’d be willing to go over $2 trillion in a total price tag.

Manchin said that his meeting with President Joe Biden last week was “very good,” but wouldn’t say if they were close to a deal. “We’re just still working through everything.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a prominent liberal, acknowledged divisions within the party but still struck an optimistic note.

“Not everybody is on the same page yet, but I think we’re all heading in the same direction,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.

Asked about threats from House progressives to vote against the bipartisan bill without the larger package, Warren said, “We’re not there yet.”

Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, who could be facing a competitive reelection next year, sidestepped questions about a potential $3.5 trillion price tag and Manchin’s call for a pause.

“People are talking to me about a number of really important priorities that are critical to the overall economy. So that’s what our focus should be,” she said when asked about her colleague’s concerns and whether she agrees there should be a pause in the effort to pass the sweeping package.

Hassan added that “it’s all about the details” when asked about proposed tax increases that could be used to pay for the plan, a hot-button issue that Republicans have been quick to attack Democrats over and one of the potential sticking points in the way of uniting Democrats in support of the package.

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who also represents New Hampshire, indicated that she too needs to see more details about the plan, which is slated to address a wide range of issues including child care and education.

Asked what her concerns are with the package, she said, “The details of what’s in it and structuring it in a way that makes it challenging for states like New Hampshire to provide a state match. … If it is structured in a way that prevents us from participating, then it’s going to be very difficult. So I just want to know some of those details.”

This story has been updated.

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CNN’s Morgan Rimmer and Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.

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