House Democrats pivot to economy in search of next legislative win

After the party’s failed push on voting rights and with the White House’s biggest domestic priority stalled, House Democrats will pivot hard this week to a huge policy bill intended to shore up U.S. manufacturing, particularly to increase competitiveness with China. That bill is expected to come to the House floor by week’s end, where it’ll have to win near-unanimous support within the Democratic caucus given that most House Republicans oppose the legislation.

Swing-district Democrats have been the most vocal proponents of the shift to an economic bill that could actually become law, anxious to show voters that they’re tackling the crises that could seal lawmakers’ political fates in November. 

It’s a move that some Democrats say is long overdue, pointing to months of heavy criticism by the GOP. The minority party has seized on a dismal few weeks of economic news, from last week’s massive market selloff to Friday’s report of a 6 percent surge in inflation over the last year — though the economy overall grew substantially in 2021.

“The pinch we are all feeling on inflation is significant,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger
told constituents at a virtual town hall with nearly 40,000 callers this week. The central Virginia Democrat added that everything seems to be seeing cost surges, “from chicken to peanut butter and everything in between.”

Inflation was a key discussion in multiple town halls this week. That includes Pennsylvania Rep. Susan Wild
, one of two dozen battleground Democrats mounting a public push for the party to put the manufacturing bill “at the top of the agenda.” 

“Like all of you, I was somewhat shocked at the prices of ordinary groceries,” Wild said at her town hall this week, fielding a question from a senior citizen whose Medicare costs had outpaced his Social Security cost of living adjustment.

“There is a lot of work that needs to be done to build an economy that works for everybody,” she added.

While endangered Democrats are eager to campaign on the manufacturing and global competitiveness bill, they’re also pushing the Biden administration to reopen talks on his $1.7 trillion party-line domestic policy bill, halted by Sen. Joe Manchin ‘s (D-W.Va.) opposition since December.

The Senate’s plate, though, has gotten increasingly crowded, now with a Supreme Court nomination in the mix. And House Democrats say they’re feeling a new urgency to muscle through at least some version of the package by summertime. 

Still, Democrats in the lower chamber acknowledge they have little leverage, since their chamber already passed their version of the legislation, known as Build Back Better. The House’s progressive faction, led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal
(D-Wash.), is making a renewed effort to show that her liberals can get on board with even a smaller version of the bill — rather than risk surrendering all of their priorities — after last year’s harder-line tactics.

“We’re trying to jumpstart the negotiation,” Jayapal said in an interview Friday, one day after releasing a statement that reaffirmed that progressives would accept a more narrow version of the bill — one with buy-in from Manchin.

The Washington Democrat acknowledged that some of the priorities the centrist senator has specifically opposed — such as paid leave, the child tax credit and a new hearing benefit under Medicare — may need to wait for another package.

“As people always say to progressives, you’ve got to understand that you’ve got to get 50 votes in the Senate,” Jayapal said.

That latest signal from the left could be critical as Democratic leaders attempt to revive talks with Manchin. Still, senior Democrats say there have been no new developments to suggest that a final package could be completed by the State of the Union on March 1, the day Jayapal and her caucus consider their preferred deadline.

“That’s an aspiration that they have,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi
said of the progressives’ March 1 goal, speaking at a press conference on Friday in San Francisco. “We will pass the bill when we have the votes to pass the bill.”

A much more realistic policy goal, Democrats say, is the industrial policy bill that will hit the House floor this week.

House lawmakers have significantly retooled the legislation passed by the Senate. Their version focuses far more on economic issues — like the supply chain crisis — that are top-of-mind for most Americans now, according to a senior Democratic aide.

The legislation, a longtime priority of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
, aims to counter China’s growing influence in the global economy and its threats to U.S. national security. It authorizes more than $250 billion in funding for scientific research and semiconductor manufacturing, with the goal of boosting U.S. companies’ competitiveness with their Chinese counterparts.

The Senate passed its version last June, but the legislative push has languished amid disputes between the two chambers over the best ways to counter China’s economic and geopolitical rise. Schumer tried to jam the House by attaching the Senate-passed bill to the annual defense policy bill in November, but eventually pulled back when he and Pelosi struck a deal to reconcile the Senate and House plans through a conference committee.

It’s unclear how many House Republicans, if any, will back the bill, which they argue is weak on China and overly focused on issues like climate.

Andrew Desiderio and Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.