Party split solution on $3.5T plan
Washington With a personal nudge, President Joe Biden pressed fellow Democrats to speed up work on his grand agenda of “Building Back Better,” asking them to come up with a final framework and best budget number as the party works to bridge divisions in Congress before crucial voting deadlines.
Biden and Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate met for hours of back-to-back special sessions at the White House stretching into Wednesday evening, in a pivotal turn of Biden’s $3.5 trillion package as lawmakers struggle to craft the details of the ambitious effort. With Republicans staunchly opposed, Democratic leaders are counting on the president to galvanize consensus among their party’s progressives and centrists.
Biden first met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, then held separate sessions with moderate and progressive senators and representatives. The lawmakers said the president listened intently, but also strongly indicated his desire to make progress soon by next week.
“We’re in great shape,” Pelosi told reporters after returning to the Capitol.
The White House described the meetings as “productive and frank” and said follow-up work would begin immediately. Earlier in the day, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the White House recognized that with time “there has to be deeper engagement by the president.”
The intense focus on Biden’s domestic big money proposal shows how politically dangerous the president and his party are in Congress. The administration has suffered setbacks elsewhere, particularly with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the protracted COVID-19 crisis, and Democrats are running out of time eager to deliver on their election promises.
Congress is racing toward a Monday deadline for a vote in the House of Representatives on the first part of Biden’s plan — a trillion-dollar public works measure — that now also serves as a deadline to produce a compromise framework for the broader package.
At one point, Biden told lawmakers there were plenty of White House conference rooms they could use to get around this weekend as some suggested they roll up their sleeves and stay to get the final details done.
Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a major centrist who refused to pay $3.5 trillion, said the president told him to come up with a number he could live with.
“He simply said, ‘Find it,’ said Manchin. ‘Just work on it, give me a number.’”
“The president is really excited,” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said after the evening’s final session.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate have been at a standstill over a separate package to keep government funding past the end of the fiscal year on September 30 and suspend the federal debt limit to avoid a shutdown and a devastating US default. Senate Republicans reject the bill passed by the House.
The failure to extend the debt limit “is not something we can or should consider,” Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said at a press conference on Tuesday.
As for Biden’s big plans, it appears that the president and Democratic lawmakers haven’t fully resolved their differences ahead of Monday’s test vote on a smaller public works bill for roads, broadband and public water projects.
Centrist Democrats want fast passage of a slimmer public works bill and have raised concerns about the price of Biden’s broader vision, but progressive Democrats are blocking their vote on a trillion-dollar scale they see as insufficient unless tied to the larger package.
All agreed to do both — pass the bill on Monday and work on the larger package, Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, a leader of the Center Alliance who attended one of the White House meetings, said.
But Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, issued a statement after another meeting with Biden in which he confirmed that about 50 lawmakers plan to vote against the bipartisan measure unless it is linked to the broader bill. She said the two bills should move “in tandem” to win progressive votes.
Beyond the public works scale, Biden’s “rebuild” agenda is a sweeping overhaul of federal tax and spending to make what the president sees as overdue investments in health care, family services, and efforts to combat climate change.
The $3.5 trillion package would impose tax increases on corporations and wealthy Americans who earn more than $400,000 a year and return that money to federal programs for young and old, along with investments to tackle climate change.
Tensions are high because Biden’s agenda is a key campaign promise not only from the president but from most Democratic lawmakers, including members of the House of Representatives who will face reelection next year.
“It wasn’t a question of when to get it done, it was about how to get it done,” said Representative Stephen Horsford of Nevada, who was with Biden’s moderate group.
Finally, more than 20 lawmakers were invited to confer with Biden, moderates and progressives in separate meetings stretching into the evening, to present their best presentations, among them Manchin and key centrist Senator Kirsten Sinema of Arizona.
Despite the controversies, many Democrats say they expect the final product to align with Biden’s broader vision, and eventually gain strong partisan support, even if that version is revised or scaled back.
But Representative Stephanie Murphy, D-Florida, leader of the centrist Blue Dog caucus, said the big bill would take more time. “I’m not sure we’re just closed off,” she said.
And while all of this continues, the government faces a shutdown if funding stops on September 30, the end of the fiscal year. Additionally, sometime in October, the US risks defaulting on its accumulated debt if borrowing limits are not waived or adjusted.
In a rush to prevent this dire outcome, the Democratic-led House of Representatives passed the finance and debt measure Tuesday night, but Republicans are refusing to lend their support in the Senate, despite the risk of a financial crisis.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said that since the Democrats have taken control of the White House and Congress, their problem has been finding votes — even though he relied on bipartisan cooperation to approve debt-limiting measures when the Republicans were in power.
But in the 50-50 Senate, Democrats will be hard-pressed to find 10 Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome the disruption. Other options for trying to pass a debt ceiling package can be procedurally difficult.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Martin Crosinger, Darlene Superville, Brian Slodescu and Jonathan Lemmer contributed to this report.
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