WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden's agenda was at risk of being derailed by divisions among his own Democrats, as moderates voiced anger on Wednesday (Sep 29) at the idea of delaying a US$1 trillion infrastructure Bill ahead of a critical vote to avert a government shutdown.
The White House said talks over twin Bills that would revitalise the nation's roads and airports and fund social programs and climate change measures, were at a "precarious" point as moderates and progressives disagreed over the scope of some US$4 trillion in spending.
Congress, which Democrats control by a razor-thin margin, is due to vote on a bipartisan resolution to fund federal operations through early December before funding expires at midnight on Thursday. The House of Representatives is currently expected to vote Thursday on a US$1 trillion infrastructure Bill already passed by the Senate, a vote that has been delayed once.
Representative Stephanie Murphy, a moderate Democrat who backs the infrastructure Bill, warned against defeat or delay of the legislation.
"If the vote were to fail tomorrow or be delayed, there would be a significant breach of trust that would slow the momentum in moving forward in delivering the Biden agenda," she told reporters on Wednesday.
But with House progressives warning they will vote against the Bill until a deal is reached on a separate sweeping, multitrillion-dollar plan to boost social spending and address climate change, the vote was not guaranteed.
"The only way the vote happens (Thursday) is if we have the votes to pass the Bill," Representative Dan Kildee, House Democrats' chief deputy whip, told reporters.
WHITE HOUSE HUDDLE
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer were at the White House on Wednesday afternoon after Biden, a former senator himself, cancelled a trip to Chicago to lead negotiations with Congress.
"We're obviously at a precarious and important time," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday.
A White House staffer met at the Capitol with moderate Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who has expressed deep concern over the size of Biden's plans and has the power to block them due to the Democrats' narrow control of the Senate.
If the resolution to fund the government passes the Senate, the House could vote quickly to send the measure to Biden to sign into law, averting a partial government shutdown in the midst of a national health crisis. Biden's Democrats campaigned on a platform of responsible government after Republican Donald Trump's turbulent four years in office.
Republican Senator John Cornyn expressed optimism on Wednesday.
"Democrats don't want to shut down the government. Republicans don't want to shut down the government. That will supply the result that we all expect, which is to keep the lights on," he told a news conference.
Senate Democrats tried to both fund the government and head off a potentially catastrophic federal government default next month but were thwarted by Republicans who twice blocked attempts to raise the nation's US$28.4 trillion debt ceiling.
The House and Senate may vote on a separate Bill that temporarily lifts the debt limit, but that too is the subject of a bitter partisan fight.
Senate Republicans refuse to vote for it, telling Democrats to act alone, while Schumer has demanded bipartisan cooperation on a measure to address debts racked up during both Democratic and Republican administrations.
The government will hit the ceiling around Oct 18, an event that could cause a historic default with long-lasting economic fallout and implications for financial markets.
Investment bank Goldman Sachs this month described the standoff as "the riskiest debt-limit deadline in a decade."
Biden also must negotiate a US$3.5 trillion Bill that aims to expand social programs and address climate change. Several senior Democrats have said that the "reconciliation" Bill - so called because it is being drawn up under a budgetary procedure to avoid Senate rules requiring 60 votes out of 100 members for passage - will need to be scaled back to pass.
Moderate Democratic Senator Joe Manchin said he believed it would take weeks to reach agreement.
The "reconciliation (Bill) is going to take a while; it's not going to be a week or two or three weeks. There's a lot", Manchin said.
Other Senate Democrats avoided criticising Manchin and Sinema but showed no sign of relenting on their own demands.
House Democrats urged the two to say publicly what they want.
"They need to come up with their counteroffer and then we sit down and negotiate from there," said Representative Pramila Jayapal, chair of the House Progressive Caucus.