Why there’s such an impasse in Congress: Some questions and answers

Progressives have called for Senate action on the social programs bill before taking a vote in the House on traditional infrastructure

By: and - October 4, 2021 2:17 pm

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 21: The U.S. Capitol is shown at dusk.(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON —  Congress may have kept the federal government operating with an 11th-hour flurry of votes late last week. but several key pieces of the Democratic agenda remain in limbo.

Here are some questions and answers on where negotiations stand with two massive Democratic-drafted bills — and the status of other looming challenges for federal lawmakers:

What are the two bills?

President Joe Biden has pushed for Congress to approve two sweeping proposals.

One is a $1 trillion measure to pay for “traditional” infrastructure projects, like upgrades to roads, bridges and transit systems.

The second is a $3.5 trillion bill to expand what Biden has dubbed “human infrastructure.”

That latter proposal would expand a range of education, health care and other programs in the nation’s social safety net, as well as boost U.S. efforts to deal with climate change.

That proposal has been crafted through the so-called reconciliation process, which would allow Democrats to power it through the evenly split Senate with just their 50 votes instead of 60.

Why are both measures stalled?
Because moderate and progressive Democrats can’t agree on which proposal should be voted on first.

And because two Senate Democrats remain opposed to the $3.5 trillion price tag of the social safety net legislation.

The traditional infrastructure bill has some bipartisan support, but it has been viewed skeptically by progressive Democrats, who fear that it will pass and the larger, more controversial social programs bill will be left behind.

Progressives have called for Senate action on the social programs bill before taking a vote in the House on traditional infrastructure.

That hasn’t happened because two Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have balked at the $3.5 trillion price tag, leading to ongoing negotiations over potentially narrowing that bill.

Meanwhile, moderate Democrats have pushed for moving ahead with approving the infrastructure bill, expressing frustration that a proposal that does have some across-the-aisle support can’t head to the president’s desk.

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Was there a deadline this week to pass the bills?

Yes and no.

After a revolt by a handful of centrist House members, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, (D-Calif.), had promised to hold a vote on the traditional infrastructure bill by Sept. 27.

A House vote was pushed back to Thursday, Sept. 30 — the day before the federal authorization for surface transportation programs included in that bill were set to expire. But lacking support, Pelosi again punted on a transportation vote.

What’s the ramification of not renewing those transportation programs?

Federal highway and transit funding, which is funded outside the normal government spending process, did expire at midnight Thursday. That meant nearly 4,000 Department of Transportation employees began furloughs Friday morning.

Are there other effects of a delay for transportation funding?

It freezes payments from the Highway Trust Fund, which go to state departments of transportation, local planning organizations and transit agencies.

Federal funding makes up about 26% of total state transportation budgets, according to the American Association of State Transportation and Highway Officials, an advocacy group for state transportation departments.

The federal agencies still can honor grants made before Thursday, and most construction probably won’t be affected.

But if the situation drags on, federal payments to states and local governments would be reduced. An August memo from the Federal Highway Administration said reduced payments could begin as early as Oct. 8.

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The shutdown “halts work on vital transportation infrastructure around the country,”  Jim Tymon, the executive director for AASHTO, said in a Friday statement.

So what happens now?

The House on Thursday night passed a 30-day extension of the transportation authorization that expired Thursday night, separate from the big infrastructure bill.

The Senate agreed on Saturday, allowing federal DOT employees to return to work while lawmakers work out a long-term authorization, possibly as part of the larger roads-and-bridges bill.

What about the U.S. debt limit? 

That’s still a looming problem that federal legislators must address. The latest projections suggest that the federal government will hit its borrowing limit by Oct. 18.

Republicans have maintained that they will not assist the Democratic majorities in each chamber in raising the debt limit.

And what about a federal spending plan for the rest of the fiscal year?

That’s also on the to-do list.

The continuing resolution passed ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline and signed by Biden late Thursday only allows agencies to maintain their current spending levels through Dec. 3.

Keeping the federal government running past that date will require further action from Congress.

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura Olson covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.

Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.