Congressional Democrats redoubled their efforts Thursday to finalize President Biden’s multitrillion-dollar expansion of the social safety net, with both moderates and progressives arguing the time has come for a deal to be made.
“We’ve rounded the turn, and we’re almost to the stretch,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “We’re making great progress to our goal of securing a framework agreement … in a timely fashion.”
House and Senate lawmakers met privately on Capitol Hill to negotiate what would be included in the increasingly smaller legislation.
Mr. Biden initially wanted the bill to run upward of $3.5 trillion and include long-sought liberal priorities such as free community college, amnesty for immigrants who are in the country illegally, and new climate change regulations.
After significant opposition from two moderate Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the White House was forced to retreat.
Working with far-left Democrats, Mr. Biden has scaled back the price tag of the bill from $3.5 trillion to $2.2 trillion. Some Democrats even estimate the actual figure for the bill is likely to be as low as $1.75 trillion.
“Although it’s a smaller bill, it’s still historic, transformational and it will make an enormous difference in the lives of America’s working families,” Mrs. Pelosi said.
Dropped by the wayside has been Mr. Biden’s proposal to grant two free years of community college, regardless of citizenship. Also out is a tax credit scheme that many hoped would force electric utility companies to abandon coal and natural gas in favor of wind and solar.
While Democrats are exploring new ways of curbing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50% over the next decade, as Mr. Biden pledged earlier this year, it will likely be through mechanisms outside the spending package.
Remaining within the deal is $450 billion for a universal pre-kindergarten program. Money is also earmarked for transitioning the federal fleet of vehicles to electricity. A further $3.5 billion would be spent on creating a “civilian climate corps” program to employ youth to plant trees.
While there is broad consensus on certain programs, the majority of the package has yet to be hashed out.
A particular sticking point has emerged on the topic of health care. Sen. Bernard Sanders, a socialist from Vermont who is Senate Budget Committee chairman, is backing a costly expansion of Medicare to cover vision, dental, and hearing care.
Most lawmakers are behind the vision and hearing provisions, mainly because they are inexpensive. Expanding dental coverage has not drawn the same enthusiasm because of its price tag, with some fiscal watchdogs saying it run upward of $250 billion over the next decade.
Mr. Biden is cognizant of such concerns and has floated a compromise, offering Medicare recipients an $800 voucher annually for dental care. The idea remains a tough sell for most Democrats, who say the coronavirus pandemic has exposed serious flaws in health care coverage.
“One of the most sacrosanct parts of our position over many years, on the Democratic side, is you shouldn’t be using vouchers for these entitlement programs,” said Rep Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.
Similar divisions center around giving Medicare the ability to negotiate the price of prescription drugs.
Moderates, like Ms. Sinema, remain opposed to the change, arguing it would kill innovation within the pharmaceutical industry.
Progressives, including Mr. Sanders, say not including the policy within the spending bill would be a disservice to seniors across the country.
“It is beyond comprehension, that there’s any member of the United States Congress who is not prepared to vote, make sure that we lower prescription drug costs,” Mr. Sanders said.
The conversation around paid family leave and the child tax credit is not any easier.
Mr. Biden initially wanted to provide 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave to every U.S. worker. After opposition from moderate Democrats, most notably Mr. Manchin, the White House has scaled back the plan to only four weeks with some eligibility caps on income.
The compromise has angered progressives. They argue that Mr. Biden should keep the program at 12 weeks, but cut down on costs by funding the overall program for 5 years instead of 10.
“What I would much rather do is a shorter number of years, but add more weeks because I’m a woman,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat who chairs the 98-member Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I’ve had a baby and four weeks isn’t enough.”
Mr. Manchin says such budgetary tactics are not “genuine,” arguing that if the tax increases required to fund the bill are in effect for a decade then so should the programs.
“If it was important enough for us to have new revenue, adjust our tax code, then the program should last for that,” said Mr. Manchin. “If not, you’re not being genuine.”
Mr. Manchin has likewise sought to temper the child care tax credit. The White House originally proposed to make the credit permanent, which gives parents with children under the age of 6 approximately $3,600 in direct payments annually.
Mr. Manchin’s attempts to scale back the tax credit come as governmental watchdogs estimate making the expansion permanent would cost as much as $1.6 trillion over the next decade. In response, Mr. Biden has proposed only extending the program for another year, much to the chagrin of progressives.
At the moment, Mr. Manchin’s say is likely to be final given that Democrats plan to push the spending bill through the evenly split Senate via budget reconciliation. The special legislative procedure allows some spending bills to avoid the Senate 60-vote filibuster threshold and pass by a simple majority of 51 votes, one of which would be Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote.
Wide divisions also remain over how the package will be funded. House Democrats have proposed at least 40 new tax increases, stemming from increasing taxes on corporations to doubling the federal tobacco tax.
Ms. Sinema has said that she is opposed to not only raising the corporate income tax, but also the rate on top-earners. She has, though, agreed to support enough “revenue-generating measures” to raise at least an additional $2 trillion.
The breakthrough in part is fueling optimism among congressional Democrats that a deal can be reached.
“This has got to happen,” said Mr. Neal. “That means you don’t always get what you want, but we want this to happen.”
Like everything else about the package, however, there is widespread disagreement over how long it will take for Democrats to come up with a final deal.
Some, like Mrs. Pelosi, say a broad agreement on the overall price tag could occur by the end of the week. Others, like Mr. Manchin, say it will take significantly longer.
“This is not going to happen any time soon guys,” Mr. Manchin said. “They’re trying to get a meeting of minds to find out what can happen from there.”