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House Democrats are hoping to pass spending package and infrastructure bill

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Democrats in Washington are at a crossroads this week. Can they unite around President Biden's agenda on everything from climate change to child care or will divisions within the party over spending and fears of inflation stall their agenda? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says plans for a vote on a $1.75 trillion spending package will have to wait for now. But Democrats are hoping to forge ahead and pass a separate trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill. With time ticking down, Biden himself made a public plea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I'm asking every House member - member of the House of Representatives to vote yes on both these bills right now.

CORNISH: For more on these negotiations, NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is here.

Welcome back, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Let's talk about what they're actually trying to pass at this point. Give us the state of play.

SNELL: Yeah. Right now, the bill that they are trying to pass today is the bipartisan infrastructure bill. That one is about a trillion dollars...

CORNISH: And this is one over 10 years or - help me...

SNELL: This is...

CORNISH: ...Know the math.

SNELL: (Laughter) It's spread out over about eight years and has money to update lead pipes in municipal water systems, money to modernize and update roads, bridges, ports and airports. There's also money to expand broadband internet access in rural areas and some conservation money.

It already passed the Senate back in August, and it has been languishing in the House. Now, if they can pass it, that bill becomes law quickly, and money could start flowing to those projects pretty fast.

CORNISH: Now, it seems like they are having a lot of trouble actually passing something. Usually, the speaker says she doesn't want to bring anything to the floor unless it can pass.

SNELL: Right.

CORNISH: So what's going on?

SNELL: Well, right now, it looks like they are going to try to maybe start the process on the other bill, the social spending bill. But they're saying that it's going to have to wait to actually come up for a final vote because that bill has been updated over and over. The current version is expected to cost around 1.5- to $1.75 trillion, and it has that - all of the spending on the social safety net and the climate. And that is the bill that progressives and moderate Democrats cannot seem to agree on.

One of the biggest elements is $550 billion to address climate change, and that has incentives to get businesses and individuals to reduce emissions and switch to cleaner fuels. And the main areas with the broadest agreement among Democrats are funding for universal pre-k for 3- and 4-year-olds and a child care - Democrats also added four weeks of paid family leave and medical leave. And it's just been a very controversial bill.

CORNISH: If it does pass, how soon could it become law? And more importantly, if people read this, will they have a good sense of how their lives would be affected if it were to pass the Senate?

SNELL: Well, yes and no. I mean, we're waiting right now for a score from the Congressional Budget Office, the people who are - the nonpartisans who go through and tell us how much a bill is worth and how much it costs. And, you know, some of that will have an impact on how it's handled in the Senate. The main areas that could change are tax breaks for state and local taxes, provisions to address the current immigration system and that funding for paid leave.

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia opposes a paid leave provisions (ph), and there are procedural issues with any immigration items because this has to do with budget process. Democrats are using that to allow them to avoid a Republican filibuster in the Senate, but doing that means they have to stick to special rules, including a provision that says everything in the bill must be substantially related to the budget.

CORNISH: Now, what happens if they can't pass the bill?

SNELL: Well, functionally nothing, other than it's a major setback for their timing and their plans. This bill is going to take time even after the House votes on it. It's just one step in a very lengthy process.

But it could have really big political consequences, both for the president's agenda and for Democrats who are quickly going to be going out there and campaigning for reelection. The entire House is up for reelection in one year. If Democrats want this bill to pass and if they want the policies to actually mean something to people, they have to get moving now because it is not easy to roll out brand-new programs.

CORNISH: I was about to say, I mean, the social spending bill in particular has a lot of really notable policies.

SNELL: Yeah, that's right. And it will be difficult for the bureaucracy of the government to actually get moving so that these policies can be implemented.

CORNISH: How has the election week sort of affected the calculus of this? It feels like things got moving after the announcement of the Republican winning the governor's seat in Virginia.

SNELL: Well, it has added some urgency, certainly, to these conversations because Democrats feel as if they either need to show voters what they can do and what they - that they can fulfill their promises and that they can govern, but they also feel some anxiety about making sure that they don't add to inflation and don't add to other systems in the political system that have made it difficult for Democrats.

CORNISH: That's NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.

Thanks so much.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSE GONZALEZ'S "INSTRUMENTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.