Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg / Getty Images
Democrat leaders on Capitol Hill have set the end of October as the deadline for nailing agreement on a scaled-down version of President Biden’s Build Back Better program. After initially setting the price at $ 3.5 trillion over 10 years to adopt sweeping health, climate, education and childcare policies, the disagreements among progressives, who make up the bulk of the party members, and two senior Senate moderates mean tough choices will have to be made to craft a bill that can wipe out both houses.
Senator Joe Manchin, DW.Va., and Senator Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, are the two holdouts who have publicly opposed the size and scope of the social spending program for months.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman and Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Lamented that 48 of the 50 Democratic senators are on board, and without full unity the measure is effectively blocked. Democrats use a process known as reconciliation to bypass a Republican obstruction, but it requires all 50 senators who caucus with the Democratic Party.
Sanders grew increasingly frustrated with what he described like a lack of detail from Manchin and Sinema on which programs they want to cut for a smaller package. On a conference call with other progressive leaders, Sanders told reporters Tuesday, “We are ready to negotiate. We are ready to compromise. But we are not going to negotiate with ourselves.”
Biden said in early October: “I was able to make the deal on 99% of my party.” Laughing, the president highlighted the focus on the remaining holdouts: “Two. Two people. It’s still going on.”
Their importance to the success of the agenda was evident, even on the other side of Capitol Hill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Told reporters on Tuesday she was “disappointed” that the package was smaller than the original $ 3.5 trillion budget resolution crafted by Democrats. While Pelosi discussed possible ways for Democrats to reduce the measure, what she said very clearly – not to mention the two Senate moderates – is that she does not want the House to vote on a bill that cannot pass the Senate.
Two centrists have different political priorities
Many have put these two centrists in the same category – they are both self-proclaimed moderates who have emphasized their preference for the passage of bipartisan bills. They both played key roles in shaping the $ 1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that the Senate approved this summer, which included new money for roads, bridges and roads. broadband projects.
But their own political priorities for this broader social spending bill could put them at odds. And bring them both on board when the leaders are also must choose which measures they want to keep and which ones they should decline while maintaining a unified Democratic caucus means that getting a final deal is more complicated.
The president hosted the two senators – on several occasions – for one-on-one meetings, and senior White House staff met with them together and separately.
If you ask Manchin and Sinema’s colleagues where to find a compromise or what they think they can both do, they say the same thing: ask them.
Senator Ben Ray Luján, DN.M., told NPR: “I think any questions for Senators Manchin or Sinema should be directed to them directly.” Likewise, Senator Tim Kaine, D-Va., Said: “Rather than commenting on where they are, I think you should ask them directly.”
Manchin has been more specific about the parameters of a bill he could support and regularly responds to questions in the halls of Capitol Hill about his concerns.
He has been signaling for some time that the $ 3.5 trillion price must be more than halved to get his vote.
“My number was 1.5. I was very clear – you all understood how I got there,” Manchin said last week. The plan is a document he drafted and shared with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., in July. Politico first spoke about it and noted that Schumer had signed the plan, which listed several categories of West Virginia Democrat’s priorities and demands, with a note stating that he intended to “deter” Manchin on these questions.
Democrats now say a package is being discussed in the $ 2,000 billion range. But many on the left and center of the caucus say they want to shift attention from what the ultimate price will be to the components of the package that would have real impacts on people’s family budgets.
For example, Manchin wants to change a policy that Democrats see as the cornerstone of their proposal: the child tax credit. These improved monthly checks were part of the coronavirus relief bill passed in March. They go until the end of 2021, but Democrats want them extended, pointing to recent studies crediting the payments with lower child poverty rates. But Manchin insisted that these benefits should be “tested by the means” in the future – saying they should target working families below a certain income level.
Sanders pushed back on the notion on Tuesday, arguing that the approach could squeeze members of the middle class. “What we want to do is have universal programs that would be paid for by people who can afford to pay for it,” he said.
Prescription drug reforms and climate change programs
Manchin agrees with his fellow Democrats that paying the spending bill should be funded by reversing many of Trump’s tax cuts in 2017 to force wealthy Americans to pay higher taxes, as well as by increasing the corporate tax rate.
He also agrees with progressives that Medicare should be able to negotiate directly with drug companies over prescription drug prices. He said it “doesn’t make sense that we’re not negotiating at all. The VA [Department of Veterans Affairs], Medicaid does. Why not Medicare? “
But Sinema is less clear on her red lines, which is offensive to Sanders and the Democrats in Congress.
Sanders held on to two separate press events during the same week in October to direct his frustration with Manchin for not explaining in more detail what he wanted to see in a final deal. But when asked about Sinema, he said: “Senator Sinema’s position is that she does not negotiate publicly, and I don’t know what that means.
Reporters in Washington, DC and Arizona were also unable to solicit further details from the Arizona Democrat. She rarely engages with the press in the corridors of the Capitol. When NPR tried to ask her a question, her staff shut her down.
Sinema told her colleagues that, unlike Manchin, she does not support allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies, a key provision that could save $ 700 billion.
Climate change is another area where Manchin and Sinema appear to diverge.
Sinema has signaled that she supports new programs to promote clean energy and penalize companies that fail to meet the new standards.
Sinema’s office did not respond to NPR’s request to comment on its position on climate programs or other political priorities it is discussing with leaders and the White House.
Manchin, who represents a coal-producing state, says energy companies are already transitioning to greener technologies and don’t need tax credits as incentives. And he has long argued that fossil fuels must be part of an overall energy strategy.
Sanders is fed up with focusing on these two senators. He said they should be the ones to compromise since polls show Biden’s platform is popular and the vast majority of Democrats in Congress support the framework.
“It’s just not fair, not just that one or two people say: my way or the highway,” he said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki recently dodged a question about some Democrats’ frustrations over negotiations with the two moderates. But she appeared to signal that there was an effort to move Manchin out of the total number. She said the President “feels that we are continuing to move forward, that Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema are negotiating in good faith, that it is recognized that not only some people have to give up their expectations as to what might be in a package, but more must arrive. “
The reality is, these two moderates likely hold the key to the final shape of what Democrats say could be the biggest social spending measure since the New Deal. If they fail to find common ground, their opposition to a package would be a massive setback for the Democratic Party and send it faltering before the 2022 midterm.