President Biden is dropping paid family and medical leave from his rapidly shrinking trillion-dollar expansion of the federal safety net in a bid to satisfy moderate Democrats.
The decision to scrap a federal guarantee for every worker to get four weeks of paid leave comes after Sen. Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat and key swing vote, signaled his opposition to the measure.
The White House had already tried to appease critics by slashing its proposal from 12 weeks to 4 weeks, but the overall program was still too costly for Mr. Manchin.
The loss of paid family leave outraged far-left Democrats, who are increasingly frustrated that their top priorities are being dropped as Mr. Biden rushes to strike a deal on a roughly $2 trillion package of social welfare and climate programs.
“We are not going to allow one or two men to tell women, millions of them in this country, that they can’t afford paid leave,” said Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat.
Proponents like Mrs. Murray and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, are promising to fight for the proposal’s inclusion.
“We are continuing to negotiate in good faith and we’ll try to get a robust paid leave package in by the time the bill closes,” Mrs. Gillibrand said.
Mr. Manchin, for his part, has promised to keep an open mind.
It’s the latest in a series of big plans cut from the package. In his negotiations with moderate Democrats, specifically Mr. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Mr. Biden has abandoned one liberal proposal after another.
Initially, the White House proposed the package to run upward of $3.5 trillion and include long-sought liberal priorities, such as free community college. After moderates threatened to upend the deal, Mr. Biden abandoned that proposal.
Also out is a program that would have forced electric utility companies to abandon coal and natural gas in favor of wind and solar power. Mr. Manchin opposed the scheme, which the White House hoped would be the cornerstone of its push to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50% over the next decade.
At the moment, Mr. Manchin is pushing for further cuts to bring the package down to $1.5 trillion. Also on the chopping block is a long-sought expansion of Medicare to include vision, hearing and dental benefits.
While the White House has sought to scale back the expansion of dental benefits, proposing to offer only an annual $800 voucher, Mr. Manchin is still not on board.
“I’ve been very clear: To expand social programs, when you have trust funds that aren’t solvent … just can’t do it,” he said.
Mr. Manchin also is opposing an effort to expand Medicaid to the dozen states that have refused to do so on their own. The initiative, which Democrats say would significantly expand health care coverage for low-income residents, is viewed by Mr. Manchin as a fiscal imposition on state governments.
For many Democrats, the push to whittle down the package further is raising alarms. Some are beginning to wonder whether the final product will be worth the effort.
“No senator’s vote should be taken for granted,” said Sen. Jon Ossoff, Georgia Democrat.
Since Democrats are planning to push the spending package through Congress along party lines using budget reconciliation, a process allowing spending measures to pass the 50-50 Senate by a simple majority, Mr. Biden cannot afford any disunity.
But the White House’s decision to abandon paid family leave does nothing to mollify far-left lawmakers.
“The problem is with members here, who although they are very few in number … think that they have a right to determine what the rest of the Congress should be doing,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders, a socialist from Vermont. “I strongly disagree with that. The minority should not be dictating to the majority.”
Apart from figuring out which programs will be included in the reconciliation bill, Democrats are struggling to figure out how to pay for it.
Ms. Sinema has ruled out raising corporate taxes and income taxes on top earners. Likewise, Mr. Manchin sidelined a compromise proposal introduced earlier Wednesday that would tax billionaires annually on any increase in the value of their assets.
“I don’t like the connotation that we’re targeting different people,” Mr. Manchin said. “There are people that basically contribute to society and create a lot of jobs, invest a lot of money and give a lot to philanthropic pursuits.”
Without proper funding, lawmakers say, they cannot move forward with a final package.
Although lawmakers are not close to a final bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is pushing forward. The California Democrat wrote in a letter to colleagues that the House Rules Committee would hold a hearing on the yet-unveiled bill Thursday.
House Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, said the maneuver was meant to light a fire under lawmakers.
“The deal is people have to start making decisions, and we have to get this done,” Mr. McGovern said.
Few Democrats saw it as such, however. Most lawmakers said the tactic only served to create confusion about the negotiations.
“I asked members of the Rules Committee, and they said, ‘I don’t know what we’re marking up,’ ” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “What are we marking up? … What deal? Is there a deal?”
Allies of Mrs. Pelosi says she’s eager to finalize a reconciliation agreement so Democrats can unlock its companion $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. Mrs. Pelosi wants to secure its passage before federal funding for roads and highways runs out at the end of this month.
The infrastructure bill passed the Senate this summer but has been sitting idle in the House. Far-left Democrats, including at least 40 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, say they are unwilling to support its passage unless moderate Democrats agree to a reconciliation deal.
Complicating matters is that liberals are unwilling to accept anything short of full legislative text on the reconciliation deal, which could take weeks to produce. Mrs. Pelosi has sought to broker a deal in which liberals would offer their votes for the infrastructure bill upon agreement on a broad reconciliation framework.
“If we truly are 90% written on this and we’re just 10% away, then let’s get the legislative text done,” Ms. Jayapal said. “So there’s no possibility for anybody to have a misunderstanding and to delay this. … We need to get both bills out. We want to get both bills out.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat. She said in a quote that has now been corrected, “We are not going to allow one or two men to tell women, millions of them in this country, that they can’t afford paid leave.”