Democrats, Scaling Back Budget Bill, Press for Compromise by Week’s End

Source: By Emily Cochrane, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, October 20, 2021

As they worked to shrink their marquee domestic policy bill, President Biden told Democrats that a proposal to provide two years of free community college would most likely have to be dropped.

Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, center, outside the White House after meeting with President Biden on Tuesday. “It’s not the number that we want — we have consistently tried to make it as high as possible,” she said of the cost of the package.
Doug Mills/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats said on Tuesday that they hoped to reach a compromise on President Biden’s sprawling domestic policy plan by the end of the week, toiling to show progress after weeks of public bickering and private negotiations with centrist holdouts.

The renewed urgency came as Mr. Biden privately conceded that key elements of his social safety net and climate proposal were likely to be dropped or substantially pared back to fit in a measure that would be much smaller than the initial $3.5 trillion plan that Democrats had sketched out over the summer.

In a meeting at the White House on Tuesday, the president reiterated that the overall price tag would be about $2 trillion and suggested that it could be as low as $1.75 trillion, said two people who were familiar with the discussion. They also cautioned that the details were still in flux. In recent days, Mr. Biden had previously proposed spending $1.9 trillion to $2.2 trillion over 10 years.

He told Democrats that a plan to provide two years of free community college would most likely have to be jettisoned, according to lawmakers who attended. The concession came days after negotiators began preparing to drop a clean electricity program intended to help rapidly replace coal- and gas-fired power plants, which is opposed by Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, whose concerns about the package are driving the talks.

Mr. Biden also raised the possibility of curtailing an expansion of monthly payments to families with children, potentially extending the program for one year with permanent refundability, compared with the longer time frame many Democrats sought, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

The overall bill was still expected to address climate change, expand health care benefits, provide some federal coverage for prekindergarten and home care, and be fully financed with some tax increases. (Mr. Biden, according to attendees, focused largely on the proposed spending.)

Democrats have grown increasingly concerned about the fate of their marquee domestic policy plan amid intense divisions in their ranks over its contents and little insight into private talks with two key centrist senators who have pushed back on its cost and scope: Mr. Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

But Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, emerged from a private lunch to announce that there had been “universal agreement in that room that we have to come to an agreement, and we’ve got to get it done, and want to get it done this week.”

“Everyone is going to be disappointed in certain things, but everyone is going to be glad about certain things,” he added.

Speaking privately to lawmakers on Tuesday, Mr. Biden said he wanted an agreement before he travels to Glasgow for a climate conference at the end of the month. He met separately with a group of moderate lawmakers and a group of liberals to discuss emerging details of the plan.

As they puzzle over ways to shrink the bill, some Democrats have pushed to include fewer programs. But lawmakers said many of the proposals contained in Mr. Biden’s original plan appeared likely to remain in some form, with shortened durations and limited eligibility.

“It’s not the number that we want — we have consistently tried to make it as high as possible,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington and the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “The idea that we can do these programs, a multitude of programs, and actually get them going so that they deliver immediate transformational benefits to people, is what we’re focused on.”

In order to bypass unanimous Republican opposition, Democrats are using a fast-track budget process known as reconciliation to shield it from a filibuster. But they must still win the votes of all 50 of their senators and nearly every House Democrat.

With looming deadlines to keep the government funded past Dec. 3 and avoid a first-ever default on the federal debt, Democrats are eager to wrap up work on their policy ambitions.

Much of the effort to bridge the intraparty divides have centered on Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema, who both met with Mr. Biden on Tuesday. Ms. Sinema missed the lunch with Democratic senators because she was discussing the plan with senior White House staff members.

Mr. Manchin also huddled privately with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the Budget Committee chairman and a champion of the original $3.5 trillion plan, according to an aide.

Mr. Biden, whom Democrats have pressed to take a more active role in the talks, spent much of Tuesday discussing the package with lawmakers from the party’s liberal and moderate wings.

“After a day of constructive meetings, the president is more confident this evening about the path forward to delivering for the American people on strong, sustained economic growth that benefits everyone,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in a statement.

There is little time for them to resolve their differences. Some Democrats want to vote on a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill by Oct. 31, when a series of transportation programs will lapse unless Congress acts. But progressives in the House are withholding their votes for that measure until the Senate passes the reconciliation bill. Some Democrats are hopeful that if they can reach a compromise on the reconciliation measure, it will be enough to persuade liberals in the House to pass the infrastructure bill.

“A framework means different things to different people,” said Senator Tina Smith, Democrat of Minnesota. “For me, what it means is that there’s a detailed enough description of what we are going to do, that I won’t be surprised when I see the legislative language, and I think that that is definitely possible.”

One of the most significant hurdles for Democrats is the scope of the climate provisions, after Mr. Manchin panned the clean electricity program and a carbon tax. (Senator Jon Tester of Montana, another key centrist, also said he had concerns about the tax.)

Democrats are in discussions to repurpose $150 billion that had been earmarked for an effort to spur electric utilities to more rapidly reduce emissions — which Mr. Manchin opposes — to instead fund other efforts to fight climate change. Those include additional tax credits for solar and nuclear power and capturing carbon emissions from fossil fuel-powered plants. They also include grants and loans to incentivize emissions reductions in steel, concrete and other industrial uses.

“We’re going with tax incentives — we’re going to incentivize people basically to move forward on technology that we have,” Mr. Manchin said on Tuesday. “We’re going to take the best that we have in technology and use it for the betterment of the globe.”

But for liberal Democrats, that may not be sufficient for legislation that they see as their best chance to help counter the mounting toll of climate change.

“There is very definite concern, and we’ll be working very, very hard to get as strong a piece of legislation as we can,” said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader. “The bottom line: We need 51 votes in the Senate.”

Catie Edmondson, Jim Tankersley and Chris Cameron contributed reporting.