United against higher spending, centrist Democrats don't agree on what to cut or keep
Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill have set the end of October as the time frame to nail down an agreement on a scaled-back version of President Biden's Build Back Better Agenda. After initially setting the price tag at $3.5 trillion over 10 years to enact sweeping health care, climate, education and child care policies, disagreements between progressives, who make up the bulk of the party's members, and two key Senate moderates mean some tough choices will need to be made to fashion a bill that can clear both chambers.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., are the two holdouts who have publicly opposed the size and scope of the social spending package for months.
Both the president and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have lamented that 48 out of 50 senators in the Democratic caucus are on board, and without full unity the measure is effectively stalled. Democrats are using a process known as reconciliation to get around a Republican filibuster, but that requires all 50 senators who caucus with the Democratic Party.
Sanders has grown increasingly frustrated about what he described as a lack of details from Manchin and Sinema about what programs they want cut for a smaller package. On a conference call with fellow progressive leaders, Sanders told reporters on Tuesday, "We are prepared to negotiate. We are prepared to compromise. But we are not going to negotiate with ourselves."
Biden said in early October, "I was able to close the deal on 99 percent of my party." Laughing, the president stressed the focus on the remaining holdouts: "Two. Two people. That's still underway."
Their importance to the success of the agenda was evident, even on the other side of the Capitol. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters on Tuesday she was "disappointed" that the package would be smaller than the original $3.5 trillion budget resolution Democrats crafted. While Pelosi discussed possible ways Democrats could slim the measure down, what she made abundantly clear — without mentioning the two Senate moderates — is that she doesn't want the House to vote on any bill that can't pass the Senate.
Two centrists have different policy priorities
Many have put these two centrists in the same category — they are both self-described moderates who have stressed their preference to pass bipartisan bills. They both played key roles in the crafting of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate approved this summer, which included new money for roads, bridges and broadband projects.
But their own policy priorities for this broader social spending bill could put them at odds. And getting them both on board when leaders will also have to choose which measures they want to keep and which they have to drop while maintaining a unified Democratic caucus means that getting a final deal is more complicated.
The president has hosted both senators — multiple times — for one-on-one meetings, and senior White House staff members have met with them both together and separately.
If you ask Manchin's and Sinema's colleagues where compromise can be found or what they think could satisfy the two, they say the same thing: Ask them.
Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., told NPR, "I think that any questions for senators Manchin or Sinema should be directed to them directly." Similarly, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said, "Rather than comment on where they are, I think you should ask them directly."
Manchin has been more specific about the parameters for a bill he could support and regularly fields questions in Capitol hallways about his concerns.
He has been signaling for some time that the $3.5 trillion price tag needs to be cut by more than half to get his vote.
"My number has been 1.5. I've been very clear — you all have got the outline on how I got there," Manchin said last week. The outline is a document he drafted and shared with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in July. Politico first reported on it and noted that Schumer signed the outline, which listed several categories of priorities and demands from the West Virginia Democrat, with a note that he intended to "dissuade" Manchin on these issues.
Democrats now say a package is being discussed in the $2 trillion range. But many from both the left and center of the caucus say they want to shift the focus from what the ultimate price tag will be to the components of the package that would have real-world impacts on people's family budgets.
For example, Manchin wants to change one policy Democrats see as a cornerstone of their proposal — the child tax credit. These enhanced monthly checks were part of the coronavirus relief bill passed in March. They go until the end of 2021, but Democrats want them extended, pointing to recent studies crediting the payments for a drop in child poverty rates. But Manchin has insisted that these benefits should be "means tested" going forward — saying they should be targeted to working families below a certain income level.
Sanders pushed back on that notion on Tuesday, arguing that this approach could squeeze those in the middle class. "What we want to do is have universal programs that would be paid for by people on top who can afford to pay for it," he said.
Prescription drug reforms and climate change programs
Manchin does agree with his Democratic colleagues that paying for the spending bill should be financed by rolling back many of the 2017 Trump tax cuts to make wealthy Americans pay higher taxes, as well as raising the tax rate on corporations.
He also agrees with progressives that Medicare should be able to negotiate directly with drug companies on prices of prescription drugs. He said it "makes no sense at all that we don't negotiate at all. The VA [Department of Veterans Affairs], Medicaid does it. Why doesn't Medicare?"
But Sinema is less clear about what her red lines are, which is vexing to Sanders and congressional Democrats.
Sanders made it a point at two separate press events last week to direct his frustration at Manchin for not spelling out in more detail what he wants to see in a final deal. But when asked about Sinema, he said, "Senator Sinema's position is that she doesn't negotiate publicly, and I don't know what that means."
Reporters in Washington, D.C., and Arizona have also been unable to solicit more details from the Arizona Democrat. She rarely engages with the press in the Capitol hallways. When NPR tried to ask her a question, her staff shut it down.
Sinema has told her colleagues that, unlike Manchin, she does not support allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies, a key provision that could get $700 billion in savings.
Climate change is another area where Manchin and Sinema appear to diverge.
Sinema has been signaling that she supports new programs to promote clean energy and penalize businesses that fail to meet new standards.
Sinema's office did not respond to NPR's request for comment on her position on climate programs or other policy priorities that she is discussing with leaders and the White House.
Manchin, who represents a coal-producing state, argues that energy companies already are making the transition to greener technologies and don't need tax credits as incentives. And he has long maintained that fossil fuels need to be part of an all-of-the-above energy strategy.
Sanders is fed up with the focus on these two senators. He said they should be the ones compromising since polls show Biden's agenda is popular and the vast majority of Democrats in Congress back the framework.
"It is simply not fair, not right that one or two people say: My way or the highway," he said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki recently sidestepped a question about the frustrations some Democrats have over negotiations with these two moderates. But she appeared to signal there was an effort to move Manchin on the overall number. She said the president "feels that we're continuing to make progress, that both Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema are negotiating in good faith, that there is a recognition that not only do some people have to come down from their expectations of what might be in a package, but some others have to come up."
The reality is that these two moderates likely hold the key to the final shape of what Democrats say could be the most significant social spending measure since the New Deal. If they can't find common ground, their opposition to a package would be a massive setback for the Democratic Party and send it reeling ahead of the 2022 midterms.
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