Biden and Democrats unveil $1.85-trillion plan for social and climate change programs

WASHINGTON —

After months of negotiation, President Biden and Democratic leaders on Thursday released the framework of a $1. 85-trillion bill that would reform the nation’s social programs and attempt to address the climate crisis. But Democrats still have trouble securing the almost unanimous support of their party to pass it.

Biden appeared on Capitol Hill to announce the framework, encouraging Democrats to end their bickering and support his chief legislative priority.

Hours before he left the country for back-to-back international summits, Biden laid out the political stakes for Congress, where Democrats have slim majorities in both houses heading into next year’s midterm election. According to a source familiar with the comments, Biden stated that Congress’ majorities (House and Senate) and his presidency would be decided by the events of the week.

The proposed package would bring the most substantial expansion of the nation’s social safety net programs in decades, even though it is far less ambitious than the $3.5-trillion measure Democrats once envisioned.

It would offer universal preschool for children aged 3 and 4, the first expansion of public education in America since high school.

The plan would provide subsidies for childcare, increase the child tax credit for one-year and expand assistance under Affordable Care Act. Medicaid would be expanded in states that chose not to do so under the 2010 law, also known as Obamacare.

Medicare would grow to include hearing coverage, a policy that is likely to be politically popular with seniors.

The climate policies, pegged at about $555 billion, have not yet been finalized but include a clean energy tax credit to spur uptake of rooftop solar, tax credits for electric vehicles and clean energy technology as well as the creation of a civilian climate corps for conservation efforts.

Under the plan, some immigrants in the country without legal status would be allowed to apply for work permits as long as they’ve been in the country for several years. This protection is crucial for DACA recipients, also known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Missing from the framework — which Democrats said they expect to modify — are many progressive priorities. The framework no longer provides a path to citizenship for the so-called Dreamers. Vision and dental benefits are also eliminated in Medicare. The bill does NOT lift the SALT cap on local and state taxes.

Centrist Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia essentially vetoed paid family and medical leave, as well as a climate program that would have encouraged utilities to increase their use of renewable energy through a combination of payments and fines.

Arizona centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s opposition to Medicare negotiating prescription drug prices means that policy is out too, a significant blow for Democrats who have campaigned on the issue for 15 years.

Several Democrats said they would continue to lobby their colleagues on adding policy to the bill, particularly prescription drugs, lifting the SALT cap and paid family leave.

While the framework marked a potential breakthrough, it was no panacea for the distrust between Senate centrists and the House progressives who have held up a House vote on a separate bipartisan $1-trillion infrastructure bill. The two bills, together with the social spending plan make up Biden’s legislative agenda.

Progressives have said they won’t support the infrastructure bill until they have a commitment that the Senate will pass the larger social spending bill. Biden and House leaders attempted to convince progressives to vote on Thursday for the infrastructure bill. The Senate had already approved it.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said she wanted the vote held by the time Biden lands in Rome at 8 p.m. Eastern time. She told Democrats that she wanted the president to get a confidence vote from Congress when he gets off the plane.

But the progressives remained firm in their position. According to Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (D-Wash.), there are “too few no votes for [infrastructure bill] today.”

The House approved a temporary measure to finance surface transportation through Dec. 3. This will likely serve as the new deadline to take action on Biden’s bills.

Biden told House Democrats that he believed the social spending bill would get 50 Senate votes and enough support to get through the House, but that confidence did not convince them. Jayapal called it “a bit of a leap of faith.”

Progressives said they needed a commitment that Sinema and Machin would approve the social spending bill. In the 50-50 split Senate, their support will be essential.

Manchin and Sinema said in separate statements that they will continue to work on the plan, but expressed no guarantee to support it.

Biden’s visit to Capitol Hill represented a roll of the dice as he takes on a larger, public role in bringing negotiations to a close and moving toward final votes. Biden has spent most of his recent work on the effort in small groups or one-on-one meetings with key lawmakers.

Stressing the message the bills would send to other countries after the Jan. 6 insurrection, he said, “the rest of the world wonders whether we can function.”

Thursday’s visit marks the second time House Democrats have rebuffed the president’s in-person request to vote on the infrastructure bill, the first coming at the end of September.

Several policies in the bill are expected to change in the coming days. The immigration provisions may be the most fragile.

The framework would provide benefits for some immigrants who are not legal citizens. According to sources familiar with the plan, it would prevent deportation and allow people to apply for work permits as long as they have lived in the country for a certain number of years.

Protection would be granted for five years and would be renewable for another five, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said.

Menendez said he is confident the plan would meet Senate rules, although the parliamentarian has not yet approved the policy. The Senate’s rule-keeper stated that prior efforts to create a pathway to citizenship as part the bill were in violation of Senate rules ..

While it is far short of Democrats’ hopes to enact a pathway to citizenship as part of the plan, it marks the “biggest step forward in decades,” said Todd Schulte, president of the immigration advocacy group FWD.us.

Another policy area that needs more definition is climate. The proposed climate policies consist of a series of grants, tax credits and targeted incentives totaling $555 billion.

However, some have questioned whether it is enough to achieve Biden’s goal of halving emissions from 2005 levels by 2030.

“I don’t think it’s enough in terms of what we have to do to rapidly pivot to renewable energy,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), stated that he would like to see modeling evidence to determine whether policies will reduce emissions. He said, “We want modeling.”

Times staff writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.

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