The biggest roadblock to President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda at the moment isn’t centrist Senator Joe Manchin or a progressive like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—it’s a third-term New Jersey Democrat who most Americans have never heard of: Representative Josh Gottheimer.
For Democrats to have any hope of passing their transformative, $3.5 trillion economic package—a proposal that would mandate paid family leave, universal pre-K, and two free years of community college, among other programs—a budget blueprint must first pass through the House. But Gottheimer and his merry band of moderates (nine in all) are threatening to defeat that measure this week if Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t first bring up the bipartisan infrastructure bill that recently passed the Senate. The result is a legislative staring contest with enormous stakes, both politically for the Democratic Party in next year’s midterm elections and far more personally for the millions of Americans who would be affected by the bill’s passage.
With Republicans opposed to the $3.5 trillion bill, Democrats can lose no more than three votes in the House. Progressives say Gottheimer is jeopardizing a carefully laid dual-track strategy, whereby the House would pass the infrastructure bill only after the Senate delivers on the rest of Biden’s plan later this fall. Gottheimer, however, is pointing his finger right back at the progressives, who have made their own threats to sink the infrastructure bill if they don’t get what they want in the broader legislation. “They’re holding the president’s priority hostage, which I don’t understand,” Gottheimer told me in an interview last week.
Pelosi has offered up a compromise by linking both bills closer together in the House, but so far Gottheimer and his colleagues are holding firm. He insists that he’s not trying to derail Biden’s agenda, and he says he’s supportive of the Democratic budget, which would set up a process known as reconciliation allowing the $3.5 trillion bill to bypass a Senate filibuster. Gottheimer just wants the infrastructure bill—itself the product of painstaking negotiations—to be signed into law right away. “We need to get the shovels in the ground now,” he told me.
Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Russell Berman: The Democratic House leadership and much of the caucus are united behind a strategy of first passing the budget resolution and then passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill once the Senate this fall passes the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill to ensure that Democrats get both bills, not just one. You and your colleagues want to pass the bipartisan bill first. Why are they wrong, and why are you right?
Josh Gottheimer: I’ve heard from a lot of Democrats who are not part of the nine, who have said to me this is exactly right: There’s no reason why we, when we have this historic once-in-a-century infrastructure package in front of us out of the Senate with a strong bipartisan vote, shouldn’t immediately bring it to the floor and vote on it as soon as possible. The president himself tweeted the day it was passed, “Send it to my desk as soon as possible,” and that’s for good reason. To put it at risk and to wait months for it to pass—and, frankly, risk that it may never become law at all—is something our country can’t afford, and we need to get the shovels in the ground now.
Berman: If Congress were only able to pass the infrastructure bill, and then the reconciliation bill fell apart, would that be a success, or are both bills necessary?
Gottheimer: I don’t see that as any kind of scenario. What we’ve said clearly is, “Let’s vote on this infrastructure bill now, and then let’s move forward on reconciliation.” The confusion here is people think folks are against moving forward with reconciliation. Not at all. There are so many important priorities in there. We’re going to have to have a debate, as we should on a piece of legislation of this importance, about the size and scope of some of the items.
Berman: There are a lot more progressives in the House these days than there are moderates like you, and they’re saying that you are jeopardizing the bulk of President Biden’s agenda. The reconciliation package is much larger than the infrastructure package, and it would transform America in a much bigger way. They’ve been clear from the start that they don’t support the bipartisan bill if they don’t get the reconciliation package, and they have the votes to tank it.
Gottheimer: They have the votes to tank it, and they’re holding the president’s priority hostage, which I don’t understand. If I told you how many calls we’re getting from the hardworking men and women of labor, all across the state of New Jersey, who are saying, “Why don’t you just pass it so we can get these jobs moving?” I support moving forward on reconciliation, and we’re obviously going to debate the differences. But there was no deal made with all of us where they came in and said, “This is how it’s going to be.” When you’ve got roads and bridges crumbling—in New Jersey, the worst on-time train system in the country is getting massive help for mass transit—to hold that back and use it as a political football, I just don’t understand.
Berman: Aren’t you doing the same thing? Aren’t you holding a hostage yourself in return by holding up the budget resolution and saying you’re not going to vote for that until the infrastructure bill passes?
Gottheimer: No, not at all, because they’ve announced for months that they’re not going to bring infrastructure to the floor. For months, many of my colleagues have said they won’t vote for the infrastructure package if they don’t get what they want in the reconciliation package. I’ve literally said to my colleagues, “Let’s vote on the infrastructure bill, and then, like, 15 minutes later we can start debate on the budget resolution and vote on it the next day.”
Berman: So if Speaker Pelosi brings up the budget resolution without first passing the infrastructure, will you vote against it, and will all eight of your colleagues vote against it?
Gottheimer: We have said that’s our position, yes. We affirmed that again this morning. I’m hopeful we’ll work this out before that vote.
Berman: Besides bringing up the infrastructure bill, is there anything else Speaker Pelosi could offer you? Is there a deal to be had that’s separate?
Gottheimer: I’m focused on the infrastructure package, and I really believe and I’m hopeful that we will work this out by the time of the vote. I’ve said multiple times I’m eager to sit down and work this out and find a way forward here.
Berman: Are you confident that your colleagues are firmly with you here? Pelosi has been an expert at getting votes. Do you think she’s going to try to pick you off one by one and get this through?
Gottheimer: Folks are certainly working really hard on that.
Berman: On the reconciliation bill, could you vote for a $3.5 trillion bill? Is that too much for you, or do you have other concerns with it?
Gottheimer: I can’t really comment until I see the legislation. There’s lots in there that I support, like clean energy; child care; immigration reform; Medicare dental, vision, and hearing—so many items in there that are key priorities of ours and mine. Are there other things on the revenue-raiser side that I’m concerned about, that I need to see the details on? Sure. But I’ve got to see the specifics. Right now there’s just a top-line outline.
Berman: The basic premise here from many Democrats is that voters will reward bold, even costly legislative action, and that they care more about results than they do about bipartisanship for its own sake. Do you think they’re misreading voters?
Gottheimer: You’d never do bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship. Bipartisanship is a means to achieving what’s best for the American people. But if you don’t talk to others, you can never get there. You have to actually spend time working together to find commonsense, reasonable solutions. That’s what the Problem Solvers Caucus is all about. There’s plenty we disagree on. The key is finding places we agree on. And I think we should do more of that in this country.
Berman: Are you concerned that Democrats are risking going too big with this $3.5 trillion bill? Is there a point where voters will say “You are spending too much. You are increasing the deficit too much”?
Gottheimer: I think we have to be very mindful of what we are spending and what it’s for. That’s why you actually have these debates. I believe the infrastructure package is right on target. I think voters will reward Democrats or Republicans for delivering a key item for the country. I think we’re going to have to have the same debate on reconciliation and decide in the end what’s best. So I’m less focused on the number right now and much more focused on the items that will make up the package, and that’s what we should start by focusing on and then we’ll get to the number.