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Delays in major spending bills persist as Democrats fail to come to agreement

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The biggest pieces of President Biden's legislative agenda are on hold because of ongoing disagreements inside the Democratic Party. That includes a trillion-dollar bill to build roads, bridges and other infrastructure that's supported by both Democrats and Republicans. NPR's Deirdre Walsh, who covers Congress, joins us now. Good morning, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that the House would vote on the infrastructure bill last week, and then that did not happen. How come?

WALSH: She just didn't have the votes to pass that bill. Progressive Democrats in her caucus stood firm. They also want a vote on a broader spending package that includes health care, child care, climate programs, before backing that more targeted infrastructure bill to build roads and bridges and broadband. Specifically, the progressives want support from moderate Democrats in the Senate, like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, on this broader piece of Biden's - President Biden's Build Back initiative. Those progressives really flexed their political muscle in this standoff last week. There are just more of them in the Democratic caucus, and they use those numbers as leverage. Even President Biden, who went to the Hill on Friday, who wanted a vote on this part of his agenda, or at least a piece of it, acknowledged it was going to have to wait. There's really no hard deadline, so leaders are going to spend the next several weeks trying to work out an overall number on the broader bill to try to advance both of these pieces.

MARTIN: OK, so you said progressive Democrats want this to be bigger. Can you get more specific? What are their issues?

WALSH: Well, initially, they were talking about a $3.5 trillion bill. But Senator Manchin, who I mentioned earlier, is looking at something more in the range of $1.5 trillion. That's really kind of a nonstarter for progressives. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington state - she's the head of this progressive caucus that is just a big chunk of the Democratic caucus - she was on CNN yesterday, and when she was asked about this $1.5 trillion number from Manchin, she just literally said, this is not going to happen. Here's more of what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRAMILA JAYAPAL: That's too small to get our priorities in. So it's going to be somewhere, you know, between 1.5 and 3.5, and I think the White House is working on that right now because remember, what we want to deliver is child care, paid leave...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

JAYAPAL: ...Climate change.

WALSH: But President Biden did deliver a message on Friday that both sides are going to have to give. So it's clear this spending package is going to have to be scaled back significantly. One way Jayapal mentioned that they can still include a bulk of their policy priorities is to pay for some items for a shorter amount of time - for example, maybe extend the child tax credit for four years instead of six years. But remember, Democrats are using this process that they need to get around a Republican filibuster, so they all need to stay on the same page.

MARTIN: Right. So what comes next in this standoff?

WALSH: Well, Pelosi over the weekend pushed the deadline for a vote on both of these measures to the end of October, but they can extend that again if they need to. So it's possible this could drag out through the fall. But even though there was this messy, open fight inside the Democratic Party, many Democrats I talked to last week said this may actually get them closer to a deal. More people are talking about specific numbers and details. We're going to see a lot of negotiations this week. One thing I'm watching is what Manchin and Sinema are going to support in terms of tax changes. That will determine how much money they can raise and how much they can pay.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, Deirdre, I have to ask you about two words - the debt ceiling.

WALSH: Yeah, that's a bigger and more immediate issue and one that really could affect the economy. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says Congress has until October 18 to raise the debt limit. That gives the government the ability to borrow more money to pay its bills. Republicans are saying they won't join Democrats to do this, and they should just wrap it into that bigger spending package that they're going to pass on their own. But Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, they oppose that. So it's really unclear how we're going to avoid a default as we creep towards this deadline.

MARTIN: Acting congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh. Thank you.

WALSH: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.