Biden Battles for Budget Deal Amid Democratic Infighting
(Bloomberg) -- Five months after President Joe Biden unveiled his vision of a new social contract between the federal government and American families, the administration is struggling to unite congressional Democrats behind a bill that can pass in face of united Republican opposition.
With moderate and progressive lawmakers split over the final size of what in August was penciled in as a $3.5 trillion package, and over a welter of elements from spending to taxes, Biden on Wednesday put his engagement into high gear.
The president hosted three separate meetings with Democratic lawmakers at the White House on Wednesday -- one with the leadership, one with progressives and one with moderates -- in an effort to salvage what would likely be his biggest legislative achievement. Failure would also likely kill off a separate infrastructure bill, leaving Biden’s long-term economic agenda in tatters.
The talks didn’t lead to a breakthrough. Pramila Jayapal, the Washington State representative who chairs the House Progressive Caucus, said that a majority of her group would still vote against the infrastructure bill -- negotiated among Senate moderates with little input from liberals -- unless the larger domestic spending measure was sent to Biden first.
The House is supposed to vote as soon as Monday to clear the $550 billion infrastructure measure, but the $3.5 trillion bill -- which would include a range of tax increases -- is stalled in the Senate over objections from moderate Democrats.
“We’ve got a hectic few days ahead,” Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, a moderate who met with Biden Wednesday, said in a statement. He said all of the lawmakers in his meeting, including Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, agreed that the infrastructure bill and the social spending bill both should be passed. Moderate lawmakers plan a meeting Thursday to discuss next steps, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the chairman of the Finance Committee, said he and colleagues had asked Biden to consider postponing the House’s Sept. 27 vote. Biden, according to Wyden, said he would think about their concerns and discuss them with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Biden’s intervention in the negotiations came at a pivotal moment, one White House official said, as the entire Democratic caucus in the Senate and all but three members in the House must reach agreement to move the president’s agenda forward. The official said top White House economic and political aides will, through the week, continue sit-downs they’ve had on Capitol Hill to discuss the concerns of individual lawmakers and consider the best way to sell the plan to the American public.
At stake is Biden’s pledge to provide a range of robust support for lower-income families, in a program he calls Build Back Better that White House economists say will enhance the economy’s productivity and help make living costs more affordable. Cheaper health care, child care, elder care and education could help counter Republican criticism of a surge in inflation this year.
“Tensions are high because there is so much at stake. This is a delicate two-to-three week period,” said Rahna Epting, executive director of the left-leaning group, MoveOn.org. “People voted for real change and that is what the Build Back Better Act will bring. Every vote matters, and everyone is doing everything they can.”
Moderate lawmakers, including Manchin of and Sinema, have described the $3.5 trillion price tag as too high, in the wake of the trillions of dollars Congress has already approved to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Many are also concerned about tax increases that could affect family businesses and farms.
On the other side, progressives including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders argue that they already compromised, having originally sought a $6 trillion bill.
Complicating the timeline: Pelosi agreed to moderate demands for a Sept. 27 vote on the bipartisan, $550 billion infrastructure bill -- something that progressive lawmakers have said must follow passage in the Senate of the broader, Democrats-only bill.
“We’re on schedule, let’s put it that way,” Pelosi said Wednesday after her meeting at the White House. “We’re calm and everybody’s good and the work’s almost done. We’re in good shape.”
Even so, there’s been no public deal on several outstanding issues surrounding the so-called reconciliation bill -- which would bypass a filibuster in the Senate, removing the need for GOP votes. The White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said anyone not worried about the package failing altogether isn’t paying attention -- even if the official expressed confidence it would pass in some form.
Among the differences up for discussion in the White House meetings:
- Some House moderates have opposed allowing Medicare to negotiate prices for a wide swath of high-cost drugs, something that would help pay for the bill
- Others have argued the latest legislative text doesn’t do enough to confront climate change
- Progressives also fault the House Democrats’ tax package as not doing enough to raise taxes on the ultra-wealthy
- Differences remain over how much extra funding should go to elements including the care of elderly Americans and free community college
Wednesday’s charm offensive -- or perhaps arm-twisting -- meetings included Jayapal and Gottheimer. Biden met with at least a dozen House Democrats and senators in all.
The intention “is to see where people are and work to see how we can get this across the finish line,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
Separately, White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield was the guest during a special House Democratic Caucus call described in a memo to members as focusing “on message strategy surrounding the Build Back Better Act.”
National Economic Council Director Brian Deese and Director of Legislative Affairs Louisa Terrell have regularly held meetings with Democrats -- and Manchin and Sinema are frequent guests of the president.
Still, some Democrats say the White House must become even more aggressive to resolve the party squabbles. One House member in attendance at the White House Wednesday wanted to hear directly from the president how his team plans to step up its efforts.
Other lawmakers, including House Ways & Means Chairman Richard Neal, describe the White House as deeply involved. “I mean, I talk to them regularly, I can tell you that,” said Neal. Representative Anna Eshoo of California, a close Pelosi confidante, said that at this point, “It’s all about getting votes.”
One key message, delivered by Biden himself as well as his aides and by Pelosi in communication with her House caucus, is to affirm that the reconciliation bill reflects his own economic vision. While it contains some elements that are outside his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan unveiled in the spring, the package does contain the bulk of his agenda.
That assertion is intended to rebuff arguments within the caucus -- as well as attacks and descriptions from outside -- that the reconciliation bill has become some runaway wish-list from the party’s left wing, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Angst about the prospects for the bill have spread. On Wednesday, John Podesta, former top aide to Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, delivered a memo to every office on Capitol Hill urging passage -- and warning that it would hurt Democrats’ chances in the mid-term elections in 2022 if that doesn’t happen.
“The historical trend makes it clear that Democrats will face severe headwinds next November, but nothing will guarantee a political reckoning faster than if the Democrats fail to pass anything,” Podesta wrote.
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