Congress Races to Avert Government Shutdown, With Biden’s Agenda in the Balance

The House and Senate are both expected to pass short-term bills to fund the government, but a planned infrastructure vote is in limbo amid deep party divisions.


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Congress races to avert a government shutdown, with Biden’s agenda in the balance.

President Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the annual Congressional Baseball Game on Wednesday night. Ms. Pelosi worked the phones from the stands as she fought to keep the infrastructure measure on track.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Sept. 30, 2021, 8:18 a.m. ET

Democrats face a consequential day Thursday on Capitol Hill as they scramble to avert a government shutdown at midnight and salvage two crucial pieces of President Biden’s domestic agenda imperiled by deep internal divisions.

With just hours before government funding is set to lapse, the Senate is scheduled Thursday morning to take a series of votes on a spending package that would keep the government open through early December and provide emergency aid to assist Afghan refugees and natural disaster recovery efforts across the country. The measure is expected to pass and move quickly to the House, where it is also expected to be approved, sending it to Mr. Biden for his signature.

But a planned vote in the House on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill is in doubt amid an intraparty stalemate. Liberal Democrats have threatened to bring down the infrastructure bill unless Congress first acts on a much larger, $3.5 trillion social policy package that includes a vast climate change initiative, expansions of health care, public education, paid leave and child care programs and an array of tax increases.

Both are major priorities for Mr. Biden, who invested ample political capital in the infrastructure compromise and has staked his presidency on enactment of a transformational social policy package.

But centrists have resisted the $3.5 trillion plan, and given Democrats’ slim margins of control, there is currently no clear path for passing it.

Despite repeated entreaties from Mr. Biden and top White House officials, two crucial Democratic holdouts — Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — 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 a 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 urging their members to oppose the bipartisan infrastructure bill, whether that legislation could overcome liberal defections on Thursday.

“The plan is to bring the bill to the floor,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Wednesday, returning to Capitol Hill after huddling at the White House with Mr. Biden and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader. Asked whether she was concerned about the votes, she added, “One hour at a time.”

Later 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.

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