House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused on Wednesday to rule out lowering the final amount of President Biden’s massive party-line expansion of the social safety net.
Mrs. Pelosi, a California Democrat, said that while the hope was to spend $3.5 trillion on the package, the final cost would be hammered out in “negotiations” between the Senate and House.
“We will have a great deal that honors the values of the president and his vision for a better future to build back better,” she said at a Capitol Hill press conference. “And we will have our negotiations … I don’t know what the number will be. We are marking it at $3.5 [trillion]. We’re not going above that.”
Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the most conservative Democratic in the upper chamber and a potentially dangerous swing vote for Mr. Biden’s agenda, has said he is uncomfortable with the $3.5 trillion price tag.
Last week, he called for Congress to take a “strategic pause” before passing the legislation and reportedly suggested cutting the price to $1.5 trillion, which is a non-starter for Mr. Biden and Democratic leaders.
Mr. Biden on Wednesday rallied support for the massive spending plan by pledging it would benefit one of the Democrats’ biggest allies — organized labor.
“You all fought for all of this,” Mr. Biden said to roaring applause at a White House event celebrating labor unions.
Unions will play a critical role in creating the jobs that would be spawned from by the spending plan, the president said, emphasizing that its funds for training workers for high-demand jobs and give them a tax cut for daycare and childcare.
Drumming up voters’ support or the spending plan is crucial to Mr. Biden’s efforts, which depend on near-unanimous support from congressional Democrats, including more moderate members facing tough reelection bids next year in conservative-leaning districts.
Further complicating matters for Democrats are a flurry of budgetary deadlines to keep the federal government running and avoid a possible credit rating downgrade.
Lawmakers must pass legislation to keep funding the government past Sept. 30 and also raise the debt ceiling before the Treasury runs out of maneuvers to make interest payments, likely in mid-October.
The debt limit is a congressionally imposed ceiling on the amount of debt the federal government can borrow. Republicans have pledged to oppose raising the ceiling as long as Democrats plan to spend trillions on party-line initiatives.
Mrs. Pelosi called the GOP’s tactics “totally irresponsible,” but has signaled that Democrats will not raise the debt ceiling on their own through reconciliation.
“I’m not here to talk about where we would put the debt limit,” she said. But it won’t be [via] reconciliation.”
Democrats are pitching the $3.5 trillion bill as “human infrastructure” to sell it to voters. They suggest the bill complements the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which focuses on roads, bridges and airport projects.
The bigger bill includes a wish list of liberal priorities such as proposals to fight climate change, amnesty for illegal immigrants, tuition-free community college and expanded government health care programs. It would be funded, in part, by higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
Mr. Manchin’s push for a delay could wind up derailing the entire package. Democrats plan to pass it without any Republican support via a special procedure known as budget reconciliation. The procedure allows some spending measures to avoid the Senate‘s 60-vote filibuster threshold and pass with a simple majority of 51 votes — or 50 votes plus the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
The disarray among Democrats threatens the whole deal. Far-left Democrats within both the House and Senate have pressured Mrs. Pelosi to remain firm on the reconciliation package, even warning that they would withhold support from other Biden administration priorities. Progressives pledged to oppose the White House’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package if it is not accompanied by the reconciliation bill.
“Let’s be clear: $3.5 trillion was the compromise,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat who chairs the 98-member Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Let’s deliver for people while we still can.”
• Jeff Mordock contributed to this report.