Biden Looks to Corral Democrats on $3.5 Trillion Senate Plan

President Joe Biden urged Senate Democrats to act boldly on his sweeping social and economic agenda Wednesday, as they began hashing out details of an $3.5 trillion tax and spending agreement that marks a crucial step forward for his plan.

Biden himself hasn’t yet said whether he supports the proposal unveiled by Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee Tuesday night, though top aides have expressed enthusiasm.

“We’re going to get this done,” Biden told reporters as he arrived at the Capitol.

If it holds, the budget agreement will be a victory for the president, bridging divisions among party factions over the size and scope of the package. But it’s a crucial moment for Biden, who must persuade Democratic progressives to agree to lower spending than they wanted while keeping moderates from balking at the price tag.

The budget measure would accompany a separate, $579 billion bipartisan infrastructure plan that Biden has endorsed, raising the total spending of his economic agenda beyond $4 trillion.

The draft budget proposal does not yet have the firm support of all 50 members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate, which it would need in the face of united Republican opposition. Democratic leaders also have only a thin margin in the House and are trying to head off dissent from progressives, who want even higher spending levels.

A senior Democratic official said the $3.5 trillion in proposed spending would be offset by health care savings, tax hikes on companies and the wealthiest Americans, and economic growth. An expansion of Medicare would be funded by cuts to drug prices, while higher emission standards and carbon tariffs would be used to combat climate change.

At a Democratic lunch, Biden told Democrats that they have to do a better job connecting with working class voters on kitchen table issues and that both the bipartisan infrastructure plan and wider tax and spending bill can do that, according to a person familiar with the event. The president said that polls show majorities of Americans support changing the tax code to make it less favorable for the wealthy.

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a key moderate Democrat, didn’t speak at the meeting but said earlier Wednesday the price tag would have to be fully offset with spending cuts, tax increases or other measures and that the tax increases should not hamper U.S. competitiveness on the global stage.

“We are going to have to pay for all this,” Manchin told reporters at the Capitol.

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, another moderate, said Tuesday the bill would be “fully paid for.”

Montana Senator Jon Tester, also a moderate, said he, too, was waiting to see more details before committing to support the plan. “The issue is $3.5 trillion is a lot of money,” Tester said. “It doesn’t scare me if it is spent appropriately and over the right amount of time. We will analyze that.”

Narrow Margins

In the House, Representative Pramila Jayapal, head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said the group’s support isn’t guaranteed without knowing details about how their priorities are dealt with. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi praised the Senate Budget Committee agreement as “a victory for the American people.”

The White House must also keep Senate Republicans on board with the separate, bipartisan infrastructure deal. Some Republicans have expressed concern that by supporting the smaller bill, they are paving the way for Democrats to pass their sweeping agenda through Congress. They’ve urged the White House to disconnect the two measures.

Under special rules known as budget reconciliation, only a simple majority is needed to pass the $3.5 trillion Democratic economic plan through the Senate. But with the upper chamber split 50-50, Democrats can’t afford any defections because Republicans are expected to unanimously oppose the budget resolution.

“There are bumps along the way,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday. “But we are going to get this done.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, raised the specter of rising inflation in castigating the Democratic plan, calling it “wildly out of proportion to what the country needs right now.”

The agreement nonetheless marks an achievement for Democratic leaders. Budget Committee Democrats had been divided over the cost of the plan and which policies to include. Chairman Bernie Sanders initially pushed for a $6 trillion measure that added an expansion of Medicare, the health program for the elderly and disabled, an immigration overhaul and more generous childcare benefits, along with other items, to Biden’s initial proposal.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said Biden’s message to the caucus was “very, very friendly.”

“It was do it big, do it bold. This is an historic opportunity,” Blumenthal said. “He emphasized the importance of the moment.”

The Budget Committee agreement includes Medicare expansion and provisions on immigration and prescription drugs, marking a significant win for Sanders.

“It’s a work in progress, but all I can tell you is that every issue that I have been talking about is in this proposal. Everything,” he said Wednesday.

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