Congress faces rush of major issues from debt limit to infrastructure in high-stakes legislative poker

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Congress is facing several major issues and critical deadlines all stacking up within a few weeks of each other, creating an extremely high-stakes pressure cooker that could have massive implications for the economy, the country and the Biden presidency. 

Among the issues are the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, the debt limit and the looming government shutdown. They are all interconnected, creating a situation in which one failing could affect all the others. 

With crunch time looming on these issues, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., will meet with President Biden at the White House Wednesday. Meanwhile, some White House aides – including communications director Kate Bedingfield – will visit Capitol Hill to speak with lawmakers. 

Here's what lawmakers face in one of the most crucial few weeks of legislation for Congress in decades. 

Infrastructure bill

Last month, when the House was considering the budget resolution that triggered the reconciliation process – and therefore lets Democrats circumvent the filibuster in the Senate – a group of House moderates stalled it. They wanted assurances that the infrastructure bill, which the Senate already passed, will be considered on the House floor independent of the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, which moderates aren't crazy about. 

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., cut a deal with Pelosi that set the infrastructure bill up for a Sept. 27 vote.

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But now, as that deadline nears, it's unclear whether the bill will actually pass. Progressives led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., are declaring that they won't vote for the infrastructure bill until the reconciliation bill is through both chambers. 

And because Gottheimer cut a deal with Pelosi that put off the infrastructure vote, Republican support that previously existed for the bill appears to have evaporated. 

"We are still clear on our position that there are not going to be sufficient votes to bring up the infrastructure bill on its own. The two have to come together," Jayapal said Tuesday. 

"I don’t think the speaker is going to bring a bill up that is going to fail," she added later.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., conducts her weekly news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. Pelosi has set a Sept. 27 deadline for a vote on the infrastructure bill during negotiations with moderate Democra (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images / Getty Images)

"Centrist Democrats have allowed the speaker to strangle bipartisanship. I'd be surprised if more than a handful of Republicans support anything at this point," a centrist Republican told FOX Business Tuesday. 

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But centrist Democrats and Democratic leadership struck a more optimistic tone. 

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told FOX Business he is "confident" the votes will be there for the infrastructure bill. Asked about the threats from Jayapal and her Progressive Caucus, Cuellar said the House should have the votes and allow everybody to stand by their choice – whether to vote for the legislation President Biden has made a centerpiece of his presidency or against it. 

Cuellar also said that in the case the infrastructure vote fails the bill can always be brought up again in the future. 

Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., promised that "the votes will be there for both the bipartisan infrastructure agreement and the Build Back Better Act… Six days is an eternity in this place."

Gottheimer, meanwhile, noted that "there's no one better at getting votes than Speaker Pelosi and so I think she'll help deliver the votes as she said she would."

Government shutdown

Without new legislation from Congress, the government will shut down on Oct. 1. 

Congress, therefore, needs to pass a "continuing resolution" before then to keep the government funded. 

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House Democrats passed a bill to do just that on Tuesday evening, but it's going nowhere because they also included a suspension of the debt limit in the bill. Republicans have sworn up and down for weeks that they will under no circumstances vote for any bill that includes an increase of the debt limit. It will fail in the Senate. 

Democrats were hoping that including disaster aid for natural disaster-ravaged states like Louisiana would help grease the skids and allow some Republicans to vote for the bill. But GOP members have made clear that simply won't happen if the debt ceiling is in the bill.

It's likely, then, that lawmakers will remove the debt ceiling provision and pass a bill to fund the government, which is nearly certain to pass with plenty of GOP votes. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Appropriations Committee Richard Shelby, R-Ala., introduced a continuing resolution on Tuesday that is similar to Democrats' bill – just without the debt limit increase. 

With the end of the month approaching quickly, however, Congress is running out of tarmac to prevent a government shutdown, and any unexpected hurdles could put the effort to avoid a shutdown in jeopardy. 

For example, progressive Democrats held up their party's continuing resolution Tuesday because it included money for Israel's Iron Dome defense system. The provision was yanked and the bill passed, but the episode proved how even small issues have the potential to affect a lot more in this crucial period for Congress. 

Debt limit

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said repeatedly in recent weeks that her department's "extraordinary measures" to keep the U.S. from defaulting on its debt will likely run out sometime in October. 

This is very dangerous for the economy as even the risk of a default could decrease the United States' credit rating and increase its borrowing costs. 

"If interest rates go up due to a default by only 1%, that adds an additional $200 billion a year minimum on interest rates," Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said. "You want to talk about an irresponsible spending program? That over 10 years is over $2 trillion, simply by being irresponsible." 

Republicans frame their refusal to vote for a debt limit increase as a protest against Democrats' massive partisan spending on the reconciliation bill. They dispute Democrats' argument that because the Trump administration racked up a massive amount of debt – including by fighting the COVID-19 pandemic – that it's both parties' responsibility to raise the debt limit. 

"Remember, when the debt suspension lapsed in August, the debt limit was automatically ratcheted up to account for all the borrowing that had occurred up to that date," McConnell said this week. 

McConnell has been suggesting for months that Democrats use the budget reconciliation process to raise the debt limit. Because the Senate parliamentarian ruled earlier this year lawmakers can double dip on the same legislative vehicle, he says, Democrats should just use their control of government to pass a clean debt ceiling increase – the same way they plan to spend $3.5 trillion. 

"Their strategy for all this ‘transformational’ borrowing, spending and tax hikes was deliberately designed to include no Republican input and receive no Republican votes," McConnell said. 

Schumer countered Tuesday that Republicans are playing games with the stability of the economy and argued that McConnell's position is based on "sophistry."

"Republicans are trying to dine and dash," Schumer countered Tuesday. "None of this debt that we are asking for has anything to do with what's happening now. Even the Wall Street Journal… ‘Congress would still need to raise the debt limit this fall even if no new spending programs are enacted.’"

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Democrats’ $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill

Intertwined with all of the issues above is Democrats' $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. 

If the infrastructure bill doesn't pass? Or if the reconciliation bill is too expensive? Senate and House moderates say they won't vote for it. 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, right, and others, return to the Capitol after a meeting with President Biden at the White House in Washingto (AP)

Cuellar on Tuesday told FOX Business he "wasn't in the room" when the $3.5 trillion number was set and therefore he feels no obligation to vote for a package with that level of spending. He also said Congress should take first things first – with the first thing, of course, being the reconciliation bill.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., meanwhile told the president, according to Politico, that if the infrastructure vote is delayed or fails she won't vote for reconciliation. 

On the flip side of this coin – if the reconciliation bill isn't expensive enough, progressives may vote against it and try to force more spending in the legislation. And progressives have made clear they won't vote for the infrastructure bill until reconciliation is passed. 

Republicans will firmly oppose the reconciliation bill, which leaves Democrats with a thin margin of error – only able to lose three votes in the House and unable to lose any in the Senate and still pass a bill. 

And there's a massive list of smaller details of the reconciliation bill that may lead some Democrats to abandon the legislation. State and local tax (SALT) deductions are one of these issues, but certainly not the only one. 

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Schumer said Tuesday that it will be procedurally impossible for the Senate to pass the reconciliation bill by Sept. 27 but expressed some hope that the legislative text might be done by then. That is likely extremely optimistic, as the broad expectation is that the reconciliation bill will take weeks or more before it's ready for passage. 

And if the debt limit and government shutdown fights get particularly nasty, that could delay this bill even more. 

Top Democrats, nevertheless, have tried to project an air of calm. 

"We're going to get this done. We always do. Because at the end of the day, what motivates us, Democrats across the ideological spectrum, is delivering for the people," Jeffries said. 

The critical few weeks ahead will reveal if he is right. 

FOX Business' Hillary Vaughn contributed to this report. 

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