Congressional Democrats are trying to muscle through a deal on the White House’s multitrillion-dollar social welfare bill before President Biden leaves town, but some key moderates are calling for still more cuts to be made in exchange for their support.
Congressional leaders hope to have an agreement on the 10-year package’s top-line figures by Wednesday, before Mr. Biden departs the next day for the global climate summit in Scotland. Administration allies say Mr. Biden wants to arrive at the summit with a major climate policy in place to showcase Washington’s commitment to combating global warming and to pressure other countries like China, Russia and India to offer bolder cuts.
“Next week is a critical week for President Biden and for our leadership on the world stage as a country,” said Sen. Chris Coons, Delaware Democrat and a close confidant of the president. “To to have him go … and say, ‘Well we’re still working out the details,’ and then work out the detail a week later, would be an enormous missed opportunity.”
Despite the looming time crunch, Democrats are still far away from agreeing on a final version of the massive bill, whose fate is tied to a separate $1.2 trillion physical infrastructure bill Democrats also want to pass.
The White House initially wanted the bill to run upward of $3.5 trillion over 10 years and include long-sought liberal priorities such as free community college, amnesty for immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally and more climate change regulations paid for by higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
But after two moderate Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, raised objections, the White House was forced to retreat.
The moderates’ influence stems from the fact that Democrats plan to pass the spending bill using 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.
Since the Senate is currently split 50-50 between both parties, any single lawmaker can exert significant influence over the negotiations. At the moment, Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema have done exactly, forcing Mr. Biden to scale back the price tag of the bill from $3.5 trillion to about $2.2 trillion.
The figure might not be low enough, however. Mr. Manchin told reporters that while a broad agreement was possible by the end of the week, his ceiling for the bill was still at $1.5 trillion.
“We’re all working in good faith,” said Mr. Manchin. “I’ve been talking to everybody as you know. I think we’ve got a good understanding of each other, better than we ever have.”
It remains to be seen how progressives will respond to further attempts to pare down the bill. Some, like Sen. Bernard Sanders, have long argued that the $3.5 trillion initially proposed by Mr. Biden was already enough of a compromise.
“Anybody who believes we can create the meaningful change this country needs without standing up to the greed and corruption of the ruling class is sorely mistaken,” said Mr. Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats.
Already 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 plan that many hoped would force electric utility companies to abandon coal and natural gas in favor of wind and solar power.
The deal still includes money for a universal pre-kindergarten program and child care subsidies, although both are likely to be limited to lower-earning families. 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 young people to plant trees.
Mr. Biden has been forced to further limit his ambitions when it comes to the child tax credit and paid family leave.
The package is now only likely to include four weeks of paid leave, rather than the 12 originally floated by the White House. Similarly, the expansion of the child tax credit will only be extended for another year.
The White House initially proposed to make the credit permanent, which gives parents with children under the age of 6 approximately $3,600 in direct payments annually.
“I’ve always said that I believe that government should be your best partner but it shouldn’t be your provider,” said Mr. Manchin. “We have a moral obligation to provide to those who have incapacities such as physical or mental. But everyone else should be able to help and chip in and all that.”
There is also disagreement among Democrats over how to fund the bill. Ms. Sinema has already signaled her opposition to raising the corporate taxes and the income rate on top earners.
That resistance has forced Democrats to find other ways to pay for all of the new funding being proposed. At the moment, the top alternative is a wealth tax, which would tax billionaires annually on the increased value of their assets, like stocks and real estate. Also up for consideration is a 15% global minimum tax on corporations, which would apply to overseas profits.
While Mr. Manchin has said he is open to considering both ideas, Ms. Sinema has remained silent. Requests for comment by both Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema were not returned.
Mr. Biden’s climate summit is not the only looming deadline Democrats face over the next week. At the end of the month, federal funding for highways and roads is set to run out.
Democrats hope that instead of passing a short-term funding measure they can move forward with the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.
The measure, which has been sitting idle in the House since passing the Senate over the summer, has been linked to the reconciliation package. Left-wing Democrats have explicitly pledged to tank the infrastructure bill unless moderates agree to support the social welfare bill as well.
“No one ever said passing transformational legislation like this would be easy, but we are on track to get this done,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat.