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Why Aren't Some Democrats Ready To Pass Biden's Infrastructure Package?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Now that the Senate has passed a $1 trillion infrastructure package on a bipartisan vote, it's over to the House, where Democrats hold the majority. Done deal? Not so fast. Moderate Democrats want to vote on the infrastructure bill first, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi and progressive Democrats want to pass that bill and the more politically tricky social spending package called the budget reconciliation bill. President Biden wants the House to pass infrastructure right away, with social spending to follow later this fall. I spoke with Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, one of the leaders of that progressive wing, and asked her to explain why she doesn't agree with the president.

ILHAN OMAR: We made a promise to the American people that we are going to make sure we have a package that fully meets the moment and addresses the dire investments that our country needs and has neglected for a really long time. And doing the packages together assures that we are not prioritizing one over the other.

ELLIOTT: But he seems to think it would be fine to move them separately.

OMAR: Yes. And the agenda is set by, you know, Leader Schumer and Speaker Pelosi. And they seem to agree with our strategy, that they need to move these two pieces of legislation together and make sure that we get our work done in a complete form.

ELLIOTT: Now, moderate Democratic senators, including Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have already been expressing some misgivings about the size and scope of the budget reconciliation bill. And it will significantly add to the federal deficit. The president is going to need every Democrat on board if he's going to get that passed. Are you concerned at all about causing a rupture within Democratic ranks?

OMAR: No. No. We have been, you know, unified in many ways in trying to address the needs of our constituents, support the agenda we put forth and make sure that we are doing our work and fighting the obstruction that's being created by the Republicans. We have a once-in-a-generational opportunity to tackle the biggest threat we face as a nation and make transformative change. Sure, you know, bipartisanship is fine. But bipartisanship can't come at the expense of mothers trying to put food on the table of the generations of children who face rising temperatures, flooding and storm damages as a result of the climate crisis. Our job is to make sure the lives of our constituents are better. And that's where our priorities should be.

ELLIOTT: I'm curious what kind of conversations you've been having with your Democratic colleagues from the moderate wing.

OMAR: They've been fruitful conversations. You know, I've heard them say I am willing to support a package if it addresses the child care crisis that we are seeing, if it's going to expand, you know, health care to elders so that they can get dental, vision. So there is a lot of support on what - priorities that need to be addressed and included. We obviously can work out a lot of the disagreements that we have. But there is unity within our caucus in the House - and I will say, even in the Senate - that we have to move a package forward that will create real investments in people's lives.

ELLIOTT: I understand the White House has been engaging with your caucus as well. What are they telling you?

OMAR: Yes. We've been in a lot of conversations, myself Chairwoman Jayapal, who chairs the Progressive Caucus, and Katie Porter, who is our deputy chair. I serve as the whip for the Progressive Caucus. I've been in constant conversations about the strategy of moving forward and trying to, you know, get moderates on board on some of these priorities. I think we're in a really good place. And we'll continue to have these conversations. We've got a couple of weeks before the 23rd, when we are being called back to the house. And I think a lot of progress will be made. I just don't want people to walk away, you know, hearing this conversation, thinking that we are divided as a caucus in delivering our priorities. We might be divided on ways that we might achieve our priorities. But we are united in delivering that priority. And we are going to continue to find common ground and work through our differences, because at the end of the day, our constituents gave us this opportunity to deliver for them. And we must deliver on their behalf.

ELLIOTT: Thank you so much for speaking with us. Representative Ilhan Omar is a Democrat from Minnesota and one of the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

OMAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.