Democrats negotiate cuts to massive spending bill
Moderates and extreme liberals get into a tug-of-war over the final price tag
Democrats in Congress agree they want to spend big on the infrastructure and social programs that President Joe Biden has touted as his “Build Back Better” plan. But how big? They still can’t agree on that.
The plan right now has two legislative components: a bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion social spending package that would fund everything from subsidized child care to dental care for seniors on Medicare. Senate Democrats hope to pass the larger package using a budget procedure called reconciliation, which only requires a majority vote in the Senate and can avoid a filibuster. But they may need to scale back the measure to get the needed support from moderates in their party.
As Senate moderates pull for a smaller social spending bill, extreme liberals in the House are pulling in the opposite direction. On Tuesday, they promised to sink the first part of the Build Back Better plan—the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill—unless the House passed the full $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill first.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., hoisted a printed copy of the reconciliation package labeled with a giant red price tag and declared it a nightmare for American taxpayers. “This bill represents Bernie Sanders’ socialist dream,” Barrasso warned.
With universal Republican opposition to the reconciliation bill and the Senate evenly divided between the two parties, the bill needs the support of every Democrat, along with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. Two moderates, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have both said they don’t want to spend $3.5 trillion.
Manchin and Sinema visited the White House on Tuesday for meetings with Biden about how to pare down the package. On Thursday, Manchin told reporters he would not support a package of more than $1.5 trillion. House leadership has been scrambling to shrink down the reconciliation bill to a size that can clear the Senate.
They have several options for trimming the fat. According to Marc Goldwein, senior policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the first option is simple: “Do less of stuff” by scaling back or dropping promised programs. For example, Democrats could lower the child tax credit salary cutoff so that fewer parents receive the full refund. Or they could only subsidize childcare for lower-income families. Toggling the calendar could also cut the bill’s official cost—for instance, by waiting longer to add benefits to Medicare or by ending the expanded child tax credit sooner. Democrats hope they’ll still have enough congressional power to extend programs when expiration dates arrive.
Biden also promised Friday that the reconciliation measure wouldn’t add to the national debt. Goldwein said the proposed tax framework for funding reconciliation, which raises taxes for high-income individuals and businesses, could cover about $3 trillion in spending. That’s not enough to pay for the spending outlined in the House’s 2,400-page draft of the reconciliation package, but until the Congressional Budget Office evaluates the proposal, it’s unclear exactly how much excess spending remains.
If Democrats in Congress can’t agree on a reconciliation package before Thursday’s planned vote on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, progressives may vote the infrastructure bill down. It could still eventually pass, but the setback would complicate an already chaotic process. With an October deadline for raising the debt ceiling, Democrats are anxious to lock in policy victories and move on.
—WORLD has updated this story since its original posting.
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