Democrats contend with how to scale down Biden’s social safety net plan

WASHINGTON —

Congressional Democrats eager to make progress on President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan are beginning to confront the harrowing challenge of squeezing their ambitious remodeling of the nation’s social safety net programs into the much smaller package needed to win over key centrists.

For the second day, Democratic leaders met with White House officials on Capitol Hill to try and reach an agreement on a framework for social investments package ,. This package is expected to provide paid family leave, subsidies for child care, eldercare, and community college as well as other progressive goals.

Biden met behind closed doors with rank-and-file House Democrats on Friday to rally their support. He urged them to find compromise around a $2-trillion price tag for the 10-year package, down from the $3.5 trillion Democrats have publicly considered for months.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was hoping an agreement on a framework would unleash support from a group of progressives who have said they would not vote for the first portion of Biden’s plan — a bipartisan bill to repair the nation’s roads and bridges and upgrade other infrastructure — until they are assured that centrist Democratic Sens. The second part, the social safety net bill, will be supported by Joe Manchin III from West Virginia and Kyrsten Silena of Arizona.

Pelosi stated earlier Friday that the House would vote to approve the $1-trillion infrastructure program, after having delayed the vote twice this week. However, the vote was canceled and no further steps were announced.

“While great progress has been made in the negotiations to develop a House, Senate and White House agreement on the Build Back Better Act, more time is needed to complete the task,” Pelosi wrote in a late-night letter to fellow Democrats.

The speaker had intended to use Thursday’s expiration in annual highway funding to press for the vote on the infrastructure bill. But in a sign of how far away a broader deal might be, the House on Friday approved only a 30-day stopgap highway bill.

Biden, too, expressed no urgency for an immediate vote.

” It doesn’t matter if it takes six minutes, six days, or six weeks. As he left the Capitol basement meeting, Biden stated that he was going to get it done.

The new focus on the $2 trillion figure for the social spending plan is coming after Manchin stated publicly for the first time Thursday that he could not support more than $1.5 trillion. This means that Democrats will likely have to substantially reshape this package. It cannot pass the Senate without Manchin’s and Sinema’s votes, assuming all 50 of the chamber’s Republicans continue to oppose it.

Democrats are just beginning to contend with the decision of whether to name winners and losers from the original package in order to ensure the remaining programs are fully funded, or slice a bit off each one, weakening them all.

If they decide to cut, they could choose to give most benefits to the poorest Americans, which Manchin strongly supports. They could also limit their duration. This option could lead to a cliff in the future, when the benefits are due to expire. It would also put them at risk if Democrats lose control of Congress or the White House. In the closed-door meeting, Biden was a part of that political dynamic.

“He wants to encourage people to think about the programs they need. If we get them in there, let’s see if Republicans take over again.” said Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles.

A third track, which delays the benefits’ start to lower the cost, presents another challenge. Democrats wouldn’t have anything tangible to discuss at home prior to the midterm elections next year.

“There’s a lot of different ways that you could continue all the programs and even somewhat robustly, but through [delayed] timing, phasing out and means testing, get the price tag” centrists need, said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “Depending on the particular line item, we’ll probably do all of those things.”

But other Democrats argue it would be better to go bold on a smaller number of items. However, this could lead to intraparty strife as different factions fight over their priorities.

There are concerns about the delay in implementing programs. When Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, they delayed the insurance subsidies for four years in order to save money — because of the complicated way Congress calculates costs — and to allow time for the complex insurance exchanges to be set up. The delay made it difficult for supporters to vote on the law until they were able to roll out the popular benefits.

“Whatever I put there, it doesn’t have to take three or more years before people feel it,” stated Rep. Mark Takano (D – Riverside).

Democrats, at least in the Senate, increasingly believe they will have to meet Manchin and Sinema wherever they land. One Democrat said, “I don’t think we have a decision.” He spoke anonymously to share internal discussions. However, this is not the only view.

” We might have to adjust the number, but every single item in the package is important and urgent,” stated Sen. Alex Padilla, a California Democrat who views the $3.5-trillion package as a compromise from Senator Bernie Sanders’ original plan of a $6 trillion plan. “I get that we might have to adjust the number, but every single item in the package is important and it’s urgent.”

The expanded child tax credit, rolled out on a temporary basis in the Democrats’ COVID-19 relief bill, has emerged as a widespread favorite. Many consider provisions to combat climate change sacred, even though some of them are costly.

In a document signed alongside Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on July 28 but only released widely on Thursday when it was published in Politico, Manchin revealed parameters of a deal he would support. Manchin listed his support for “families” and other health programs such as Obamacare tax credits and childcare. He also set parameters regarding the climate provisions that he would accept. He is seeking assurances that the fossil fuel subsidies will not be removed and that subsidies for electric vehicles will be extended to hydrogen powered vehicles. Both of these benefits help his state, which is heavily coal-dependent.

While Sinema has been far less transparent with her interests, what she has revealed publicly has made clear that she and Manchin have different interests. Manchin doesn’t believe in climate change, but Sinema has stressed it. She has expressed concern about tax hikes and inflation.

Pelosi has made no secret of the fact that she wants to strengthen the Affordable Care Act’s tax credits, which were also bumped up on a temporary basis in the COVID-19 bill passed in March. Separately, the majority whip, Rep. James E. Clyburn from South Carolina, prioritized the creation of a new program to deliver Medicaid to low-income people in states that have not taken advantage of the opportunity to expand the program under ACA.

Both of these are likely be upheld by Sanders (I-Vt.), who wants to expand Medicare to include hearing, vision, and dental. This is likely to upset Sanders’s wishes to make Medicare more accessible to older Americans. The Medicaid expansion would benefit the very poor in Republican-led states and the ACA subsidy increase would benefit middle-income Americans across the country.

The choice among those health provisions is likely to face additional constraints as Democrats’ hopes to require drugmakers to negotiate their prices in Medicare is likely to be scaled back amid strong opposition from four House Democrats and several senators. The negotiations package would have provided funding for the health expansion programs.

Democrats will turn to Biden to guide their choices and provide political cover for those who are affected by the cuts.

” Ultimately, because it’s the president’s agenda the president will have to stand up and say, “This is what you agree to, and that’s part of my agenda and what I think,” said Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y.

It’s obvious that other Democrats will hold Biden and Manchin, as well as Sinema, politically responsible for any remaining items on the chopping blocks.

“Part of the delicate dance, I think, for some of the folks, the naysayers who want to pare back the president’s vision, is that his vision’s very popular, so it’s taken a long time for them to actually come up with a counteroffer because it’s hard to say, ‘Well, I don’t want this popular thing in there,'” Takano said. “I will be mad at people who say you can’t have certain things, but they must tell me. I’m not going to do the choosing.”

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