Democratic leaders need to worry about more than just Manchin, Sinema on spending plan: Reporter's Notebook

Let’s call them “the others.”

If Democrats are going to pass their $3.5 trillion social spending plan – and even the bipartisan infrastructure bill – they likely need to worry about Democrats who are not Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

The famous, one-two punch of “Manchin and Sinema” are now the “peanut butter and jelly” of the Capitol Hill vernacular. They just naturally go together. You can’t have one without the other.

But there are lots of other combinations of lawmakers who congressional Democratic leaders need to be on board if they’re going to pull this off.

The phenomenon of “the others” was on full display last week as the House Ways and Means Committee finished a marathon, four-day session to prepare the tax portion of the mammoth bill.

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Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., is a member of that panel and leader of the “Blue Dogs,” a coalition of moderate Democrats who are fiscally-conscious. Murphy voted against the Ways and Means Committee advancing the overall plan.

“I strongly support numerous provisions,” said Murphy about the bill after the committee finished its work. But Murphy added that her nay vote hinged on “spending and tax provisions that give me pause.”

Murphy did leave a bit of wiggle room to perhaps vote yes later if the final product is “appropriately targeted and fiscally responsible – paid for by tax provisions that promote fairness.”

Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., represents parts of Queens and Long Island. He also expressed reservations about the Ways and Means Committee adopting the package without addressing something which hits high tax states: the so-called “SALT” reduction.

The 2017 GOP tax cut law actually nixed a deduction of state and local taxes (or SALT) for places like New York, New Jersey, California and Illinois. It’s believed that House Democratic leaders may aim to restore the deduction via an amendment as the plan goes to the floor. But nothing is complete yet.

So, Suozzi has been peppering the Democratic brain trust about SALT for months. 

“‘No SALT, no deal,’” said Suozzi. “I am confident that the final reconciliation package will include a SALT fix.”

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There are other, “others,” too.

For this, look at the trio of Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., and Scott Peters, D-Calif. The House Energy and Commerce Committee toiled alongside the Ways and Means panel last week to prepare its portion of the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package. The triumvirate of Schrader, Rice and Peters forced a deadlocked, 29-29 committee vote on a plan to grant the government the right to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. By rule, a tie vote in Congress fails. The prescription drug provision is a touchstone of the left-wing wish list for the social spending package. In fact, the standalone bill is named after the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. 

Schrader isn’t against negotiating drug costs. He just supports another piece of legislation he’s crafted with Peters which aims to achieve the same result. Schrader is concerned about jamming the prescription drug portion into the massive spending bill and not conducting a separate hearing on it. Then, like Manchin and Sinema, Schrader frets about the overall cost of the monster legislation. 

Moderate and centrist Democrats have other concerns about the bill. We haven’t even gotten to issues “others” on the left could have with the package if Democratic leaders begin to tilt toward the moderates to marshal their votes. 

The House is back in session this week for the first time since late August. Hammering out the issues among House members – and potentially pre-baking an agreement with Senate Democrats – is an arduous task. We’ll start to get a real sense of where this stands as members filter back into the Capitol ahead of one of the most ambitious legislative agendas to face Congress in decades.

“It is going to be a lot of stress to get this done. Especially by the end of the month,” observed one senior Democratic member late last week, already beleaguered from the agenda.

In a letter to fellow Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi D-Calif., told her members the House was “on schedule” to deliver the agenda. 

Democrats are already making good on a concession to moderate Democrats to call a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package the week after next.

“On September 27, pursuant to the rule passed in August, the House will consider the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,” wrote House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., to his colleagues. 

Moderates insisted on a date certain for the infrastructure bill. They got it. Now liberals are starting to chirp that the center of the Democratic Caucus scored what it wanted – but not the left. Don’t forget that progressives wanted to spend $6 trillion on social programs. And the proposed Medicare expansion of hearing, vision and dental care were sliced from what many left-wing members wanted.

So, moderate Democrats just don’t comprise the cohort of “the others” who Democratic leaders need to worry about. Progressives could balk as well.

It doesn’t take much to have precisely the right mixture of members from both wings of the Democratic Caucus to torch both the infrastructure bill and the social spending plan.

Believe it or not, Republicans also have their own assemblage of “the others” which could cause a problem for Democrats, too.

A group of House Republicans are willing to support the bipartisan infrastructure bill. But as colleagues Tyler Olson and Jacqui Heinrich report, Problem Solvers Caucus members and Reps. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Penn., have both indicated the infrastructure pact could disintegrate if there’s a delay in voting or if it is somehow “linked” to the bigger social spending package.

Here is the biggest problem facing congressional leaders. We have mentioned a cohort of “others” who we know about. More members could express their concerns, too. They just haven’t done so because the legislative negotiations aren’t done yet.

The 2001 Nicole Kidman film “The Others” was about ghosts her character encountered in a house on an island in the English Channel. 

On Capitol Hill, there are plenty of “others” to worry about besides Manchin, Sinema and the rest of the dramatis personae listed here. Some of those lawmakers who could object are “ghosts” for now, too. But we’ll soon know who they are as the House and Senate try to advance these big bills in the coming weeks.

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