WASHINGTON ― Democrats have spent months trying to pass a multitrillion-dollar expansion of government programs designed to help families, lift people out of poverty, broaden access to health insurance, provide free education, and fight the rising threat of climate change.
Their grand plans for an ambitious legislative package came to a crashing halt this week, however, after President Joe Biden made clear to lawmakers they would need to accept significant cuts to many of their priorities if the bill is to become law this year.
Simply put, Democrats lack the support in the evenly divided Senate to pass a bill they’ve touted all year. They’re now hoping to cut a deal among themselves, potentially as early as this week, on the contours of a slimmed-down package totaling approximately $2 trillion that they can point to as making substantial progress on Biden’s economic vision.
“Everyone is going to have to compromise if we are to find that legislative sweet spot that we can all get behind. Nobody will get everything they want,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a floor speech on Wednesday.
This week, Biden suggested a drastic reduction to what many Democrats have described as a signature policy achievement — a monthly child allowance that pays parents as much as $300 per child monthly. The payments started this year, but instead of making them permanent or continuing the benefits through 2025, Biden has told Democrats to settle for just a one-year extension.
“If we can’t get 50 Democrats, then the answer is how far can we get, and can we celebrate the changes that we are able to make.”
– Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)
Several senior House Democrats bristled at Biden’s proposal on Wednesday, but other influential lawmakers embraced it. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who co-authored the original bill to create the program, said “any extension” would be a win.
“For the second year in a row, Democrats will have passed the largest tax cut for working families ever, which is making a transformational difference in people’s lives,” Brown said in a statement. “My goal is of course to make it permanent and I’ll fight like hell to do that ― this gets us closer to that goal, and means families will keep getting these tax cuts next year.”
Other proposals in Biden’s original Build Back Better plan are likely to be dropped from the bill entirely. These include a program that would subsidize two years of free community college and the president’s Clean Electricity Performance Program, or CEPP, which aimed to cut utility sector emissions by paying power companies to increase their output of renewable energy and fining those that do not.
Democrats are also discussing scaling back funding for other proposals, including an expanded version of Medicare, which would add vision, hearing and dental benefits, a permanent paid family and medical leave program, and a program offering home care for the elderly and people with disabilities.
They may need to cut even more from the bill if Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is serious about opposing any tax rate increases on corporations or the wealthy, as The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.
Democrats had planned to reverse parts of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act ― a bill Sinema voted against as a member of the House ― to offset the cost of much of the new spending they had hoped to authorize as part of their Build Back Better bill.
For the most part, Biden has apparently adopted the progressive approach of adding as many new policies to the bill as possible but shortening their effective durations. Congress has a long tradition of creating temporary new programs and then never letting them expire, and progressives bet that they could eventually entrench new family leave benefits, child care subsidies and health care coverage.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told HuffPost she was “thrilled” Biden had apparently taken progressives’ suggestion. She said she was not concerned about a future Congress letting temporary programs expire.
“What’s more of a concern is that families need help, across the country, being able to put food on the table and get help for their kids or health care or education,” Jayapal said.
But House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) called short-term policymaking “a pretty severe roll of the dice,” saying Democrats should lay down economic policies that would remain for years. He told HuffPost he favored his committee’s version of the child tax credit, preserving the benefits through 2025.
Democrats initially sketched out their plans for a $3.5 trillion spending plan in early August, envisioning a historic reshaping of the federal government that would restore Americans’ faith in Washington and boost the party’s chances at holding on to control of Congress during next year’s midterm elections. What followed were months of messy clashes between progressives and centrists ― namely Sinema and Joe Manchin of West Virginia ― over the size and scope of the bill.
Manchin had spelled out his desire for a bill totaling $1.5 trillion in July ― before Democrats pressed forward with a $3.5 trillion budget resolution ― in a secret document he signed with Schumer that didn’t become public until last month. The document took many Democrats in both the House and Senate by surprise.
Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, offered some pretty candid comments acknowledging missteps in how the party went about selling the legislation to the public.
“We oversold it and underperformed for too long. But now we get a chance to close it the right way,” Durbin told reporters when asked about recent polling that found voters are having difficulty identifying the specific proposals in the bill.
Other Democrats said that it was important to fight for the best version of programs like paid family leave and renewable energy incentives even if some of them ultimately get scaled back or dropped entirely. In the Senate, at least, there seems to be more appetite for cutting a quick deal, calling it a win, and focusing on efforts to retain the party’s narrow majorities in Congress.
“We talked about what’s in our hearts,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told HuffPost. “It’s good to talk about the right plans and how we will be able to put them into place. If we can’t get 50 Democrats, then the answer is how far can we get, and can we celebrate the changes that we are able to make.”
Asked about the disappointment felt by activists who are watching their priorities whittled down this week, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a leading climate hawk, said, “I think they would be even more disappointed if we hadn’t tried.”
“So you set your hopes against political realities and the results are what they are,” he added. “But I think it was a noble start and a good try and [there’s] a lot of stuff still to do.”