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Democrats Are Divided Over President Biden's $3.5 Trillion Spending Plan

NOEL KING, HOST:

Senators are back from their summer recess today with a long list of things to get done. At the top of that list is the $3.5 trillion spending bill, which is a big priority for the White House. Democrats will need to quickly suss out details on policies like expanded health care, universal pre-K and programs to fight climate change. NPR's Deirdre Walsh, who covers Congress, is following this one. Good morning, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What is the status of the spending bill at this moment?

WALSH: It's actually not even written yet. Democratic leaders have set this week as their own deadline to try to put all the details together of these major policy initiatives. But one Senate moderate, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, has repeatedly said he can't support that much new federal spending. He's raising concerns about inflation and some of the tax changes that Democrats want to use to pay for this spending bill. Here's Manchin on CNN's "State Of The Union," pushing for a pause.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")

JOE MANCHIN: What's the urgency that we have? It's not the same urgency we had with the American Rescue Plan. We got that out the door quickly. That was about $2 billion.

WALSH: Leaders aren't going to take that pause. They're working full steam ahead. Their plan is to move this broader spending package using a process that avoids a Republican filibuster. And they're trying to do that by the end of this month. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is holding off a vote on a separate bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill until September 27. She wants to advance both of those bills to try to keep all of her members together.

KING: OK, so they're saying we're going to move full steam ahead, but Joe Manchin is saying no. What does Joe Manchin's opposition mean for this bill's chances?

WALSH: It likely means this bill is going to get smaller. Manchin suggests he thinks it should be more in the $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion range. That's a big change. And progressives are not happy about it. They don't want anything less than $3.5 trillion, saying they've already compromised. Here's Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders reacting to Manchin's demands to scale it back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: It's absolutely not acceptable to me. I don't think it's acceptable to the president, to the American people or to the overwhelming majority of the people in the Democratic caucus.

WALSH: But the reality in the 50/50 Senate is that any one Democrat with concerns has real leverage. And Manchin is not the only one. Arizona Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema also wants a smaller bill, and there's a group of moderates in the House who have some real heartburn over this $3.5 trillion price tag. Aides I spoke to in both the moderate and progressive camps say they think these differences can be sorted out, but the process is going to be really messy in terms of what could get scaled back or maybe even dropped altogether. It's going to go on for weeks.

KING: And then, in addition to that, there's a lot of other things that Congress needs to get done this month, yeah?

WALSH: Right. I mean, as if a $3.5 trillion spending package isn't enough, there's some big-ticket items. They need to fund the government to avoid a shutdown by the end of the month. Congress also has to raise the debt ceiling - this is the authority the Treasury Department needs to borrow money or risk a default - by the middle of October. Negotiators are still working to figure all this out, but they're trying to package these into one big bill. It would fund federal agencies through early December. It's also going to add probably the $30 billion in emergency money the administration wants for Hurricane Ida and Afghan refugee programs, and then they would also try to raise the debt ceiling as part of this one package. But they need Republican votes in the Senate, and that's a tough hurdle. They don't have a lot of time to get all these things done.

KING: NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thank you, Deirdre.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.