Deeply Divided, House Democrats Battle Over Priorities and Politics

The House returns to Washington on Monday to try to win passage of a measure needed to protect a $3.5 trillion social policy bill from a filibuster, but fractures in the party are starting to show.

By Jonathan Weisman

WASHINGTON — House Democrats will end their summer break on Monday, amid finger-pointing and rising tensions, to try to pave the legislative way for the most ambitious expansion of the nation’s social safety net in a half century.

But the divisions emerging over an arcane budget measure needed to shield a $3.5 trillion social policy bill from a filibuster are exposing deep strains in the Democratic Party over ideology, generational divides and the fruits of power and incumbency.

The stalemate by now is well known: Nine moderate or conservative Democrats have rebelled against their party’s leaders and say they will block consideration of the budget blueprint necessary to allow the social policy measure championed by the party’s left flank to pass this fall with only Democratic backing unless the House immediately votes on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill. A broader coalition of 19 Blue Dog Democrats also want the infrastructure vote to come as soon as possible.

The clamor for a quick victory on infrastructure, both for congressional Democrats and President Biden, has only grown louder amid the anguish over Afghanistan. Democratic leaders hope to pass a rule on Monday night for debating the budget measure, the infrastructure bill and an unrelated voting rights bill, with final votes scheduled for Tuesday.

“Our country desperately needs this direct reinvestment in our crumbling infrastructure. We also desperately need to prove our dysfunctional government can actually work,” said Representative Ed Case of Hawaii, and one of the nine Democrats at odds with their party’s leaders.

But Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and dozens of progressive Democrats are equally adamant that the infrastructure vote will happen only after the Senate approves an ambitious bill that includes universal preschool, two years of free community college, paid family leave, federal support for child care and elder care, an expansion of Medicare, and a broad effort to convert the fossil fuel economy to one based on renewable, clean energy.

The left-right divide, however, oversimplifies the swirling undercurrents that are roiling the Democratic Party.

Some of the same Democrats confronting their leaders on the budget resolution have allied with them to fight off challenges from the insurgent Democratic left in the coming primary season. Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, a leader of the recalcitrant nine, founded the Team Blue political action committee with Representatives Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, and Terri A. Sewell of Alabama, to defend incumbent Democrats against primary opponents.

Moderates have also allied with Shield PAC, founded by Democrats ousted in November from Republican-leaning districts, to push back on efforts to tar all Democrats with the slogans of the left. Some have backed a new pro-Israel group, Democratic Majority for Israel, determined to thwart the party’s emerging Palestinian rights movement — and defeat left-wing candidates who they say have crossed an unacceptable political line on the Jewish state.

Understand the Infrastructure Bill

    • One trillion dollar package passed. The Senate passed a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure package on Aug. 10, capping weeks of intense negotiations and debate over the largest federal investment in the nation’s aging public works system in more than a decade.
    • The final vote. The final tally in the Senate was 69 in favor to 30 against. The legislation, which still must pass the House, would touch nearly every facet of the American economy and fortify the nation’s response to the warming of the planet.
    • Main areas of spending. Overall, the bipartisan plan focuses spending on transportation, utilities and pollution cleanup.
    • Transportation. About $110 billion would go to roads, bridges and other transportation projects; $25 billion for airports; and $66 billion for railways, giving Amtrak the most funding it has received since it was founded in 1971.
    • Utilities. Senators have also included $65 billion meant to connect hard-to-reach rural communities to high-speed internet and help sign up low-income city dwellers who cannot afford it, and $8 billion for Western water infrastructure.
    • Pollution cleanup: Roughly $21 billion would go to cleaning up abandoned wells and mines, and Superfund sites.

    On Friday, yet another centrist group, No Labels, began airing an advertisement backing Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas, one of the nine holdouts on the budget who is being challenged by a young liberal, Jessica Cisneros, in the upcoming primary season. The ad extols him for “fighting for the Biden agenda,” though arguably he is now trying to hold much of it up.

    The idea, moderates say, is to inoculate the party from slogans like Defund the Police that were effectively used against swing-district Democrats in November, and stop progressive gains before divisions in the Democratic Party grow as deep as they have been in the Republican Party. The issue is more about tone and cooperation than ideology, said Mark S. Mellman, a longtime Democratic strategist and pollster, who helped found the Democratic Majority for Israel and its political action committee.

    “There’s nothing revolutionary about ‘Medicare for all,’ moving to a clean energy economy, a $15 minimum wage,” he said. “There’s a lot of consistency around the general direction of policy. But the rhetoric is different.”

    The efforts have left liberals feeling aggrieved and worried that the Democratic establishment is actually hurting the party — by sapping the vital energy of younger voters. Young liberals like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman not only defeated Democratic stalwarts to win their seats in New York, but they have captured the imagination of the next generation, said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman and strategist for Justice Democrats, which promotes insurgent progressive candidates.

    Politics Updates

    “The future of the party looks a lot more like A.O.C. than Joe Biden,” he said.

    The establishment’s efforts are showing results. One of the left’s political heroes, Nina Turner, lost a House special election primary in Cleveland this month, after Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the most senior African American in Congress, and Mr. Mellman’s group swooped in to prop up a little-known but more conciliatory candidate, Shontel Brown. In New Orleans, the favored progressive candidate in the race to replace Representative Cedric Richmond, who joined the Biden White House, also lost.

    Liberals say the moderates, not the progressives, are now the ones standing in the way of Mr. Biden’s agenda, by provoking the House’s stalemate and threatening the social policy bill in the Senate.

    “This is a shared priority,” said Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota.

    Far from folding before an expanding incumbent-protection apparatus, which already included the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Congressional Black Caucus’s political action committee, liberal insurgents are fielding what may become the broadest group of primary challengers in years.

    “I’m disappointed that party leadership sees this as a way to draw a wedge where there doesn’t need to be one,” said Kina Collins, 30, a gun control activist and community organizer running against Representative Danny K. Davis, who was elected nearly 25 years ago in a district that includes some of the richest and poorest neighborhoods of Chicago. “I haven’t reached out to the C.B.C. or the D.C.C.C., but if they get involved, it speaks volumes about where they want us to be going as a party.”

    Other progressives are running primary campaigns against Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, John Yarmuth of Kentucky, Jim Cooper of Tennessee and Mr. Cuellar, hoping to follow the paths of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Mr. Bowman, as well as Representatives Ayanna S. Pressley, Marie Newman and Cori Bush, all of whom unseated incumbent Democrats from the left in the last two election cycles.

    “I wouldn’t say it’s generational — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, there are older members of Congress who are super powerful, inspiring and making deep, impactful change,” said Rana Abdelhamid, 28, who is challenging Ms. Maloney in her district of East Side Manhattan and Queens. “It’s about communities who have not been represented, who have been overlooked, with an understanding that we deserve better.”

    Democratic leaders say the key to resolving the disputes is uniting around the president’s agenda.

    “A lot of us need to hold hands, we need to be protecting each other and march together,” Mr. Clyburn told the House Democratic Caucus last week on a conference call.

    Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, struck a similar theme. “Remember the psychology of consensus,” he said. “We are in this together, we have the leader of our party and we are pursuing the attainment of that agenda.”

    While Mr. Biden is identified, at least in temperament, with the moderate, establishment wing of his party, the agenda he ran on — forged in part by policy panels assembled by the Biden campaign and his rival, Mr. Sanders of Vermont — is closer to the left, much of which would be advanced by the $3.5 trillion budget plan expected to receive a vote on Tuesday.

    That has given liberals some confidence. “The eviction moratorium, the extension of the student debt moratorium, when we say that this has to happen, then it does happen,” said Ms. Omar, the chief vote counter of the House Progressive Caucus.

    The establishment may have warmed to the left’s agenda, but it is bent on bringing progressive personalities to heel. Matt Bennett, an executive vice president at Third Way, said Democrats could not function with the kinds of divisions that are gnawing away at rival Republicans. From the outside, Republicans might appear to have a cohesive party, and it can still win elections. Inside, the fractures are so deep the party no longer has a unified ideology or message, its members routinely take down their leaders, and it is in near-constant turmoil.

    “The Tea Party weakened the foundations of the Republican Party, then Trump sawed off the central tent poll and it collapsed,” Mr. Bennett said.

    Mr. Mellman’s PAC infuriated progressives by spending nearly $1 million on television ads to savage Ms. Turner, whom they saw as hostile to Israel. (She firmly denied the accusation, saying, “I believe in freedom and justice for my sister and brothers and family and friends in Israel, and also freedom and justice for my sisters and brothers, family and friends of Palestinian descent.”)

    Liberals fumed that some of that money came from Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, who was friendly with President Donald J. Trump.

    “By allying with groups funded largely by G.O.P. donors and obstructionists like Josh Gottheimer, Democratic leaders are bolstering people who are blocking the Biden agenda, simply to stop more nurses and principals and bartenders from entering Congress,” Mr. Shahid said.

    But progressives are not exactly outgunned. Ms. Turner and her allies outspent the Democratic establishment by around $1.6 million. Yet Ms. Turner, an outspoken former chairwoman of Mr. Sanders’s presidential campaign, lost by 6 percentage points.

    “No question there is an energy around some of these candidates,” Mr. Mellman acknowledged. “On the other hand, people thought that energy was there for Nina Turner, and when all was said and done, it wasn’t there.”

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