WASHINGTON — President Biden’s admission this week that his major social safety net and climate package must be broken apart to have any hope of becoming law has rekindled a debate among Democrats about which parts of the plan should be prioritized as they progress. work to save it.
After spending much of last year thinking about how ambitious the measure they dubbed Build Back Better might be, Democrats have tinkered hard in recent days and started thinking about a much narrower bill aligned to the demands of West Virginia Democrat Senator Joe Manchin III. , whose rejection of the broader $2.2 trillion measure abruptly halted it in December.
The talks focused on elements of the package that Mr Manchin had previously indicated he was supporting, including universal kindergartens, a $500 billion package to tackle climate change, and a measure to reduce the cost of prescription drugs. . And some Democrats have talked about prioritizing comprehensive grants for the Affordable Care Act.
“What the president calls chunks, I would hope it would be a big bill going forward,” California chairman Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Thursday. “It may be more limited, but it’s still significant.”
Talks are at an early stage and Mr Manchin warned on Thursday they still have a long way to go, saying such talks would start with “a clean sheet of paper”.
He suggested Congress should first tackle national debt, inflation and the ongoing toll of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Get your financial house in order, bring this inflation down, get Covid out of the way, and then we’ll get to work,” Mr Manchin said on Thursday, reiterating his longstanding concerns about rising inflation and rising government debt. “I want to see what’s achievable — what we can do in a reasonable, feasible way.”
The comments underlined the arduous path forward for Democrats to create a significantly smaller package. Given the evenly divided Senate, the party seeks to pass the legislation using a streamlined process known as budget reconciliation, which shields tax legislation from a filibuster, allowing it to be passed by a simple majority.
Biden’s comments on Wednesday about breaking up the bill raised the question of how Democrats would push through with that strategy and whether some liberals frustrated by the stalled process would support losing more priorities. The $2.2 trillion plan passed by the House in late November had already been significantly reduced from a $3.5 trillion blueprint to appease Mr. Manchin and another centrist Democrat, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
“I think we can split the package, get as much as we can now, and come back later and fight for the rest,” Biden said at a news conference on Wednesday, adding he was convinced that “big chunks” of the plan could become law.
Democrats are also discussing ways to address Mr Manchin’s objections to a proposal that would provide most families with children comprehensive monthly payments, which was instituted as part of the $1.9 trillion pandemic emergency law enacted last year. . The payments helped lift millions of children out of poverty and were widely used to pay for rent, food and other necessities, but lapsed in December without action from Congress.
Options include setting new restrictions on those payments, such as limiting the amount and which households are eligible. However, Mr Biden admitted on Wednesday that he was unsure he could keep that tax credit, given Mr Manchin’s reservations.
A smaller package would force Democrats to make painful policy choices they’ve tried to avoid thus far, and could alienate ordinary lawmakers whose votes they’d need to pass the plan by a slim majority in both chambers. And because of strict reconciliation rules, the Democrats essentially have one more clear shot at pushing an important bill before the midterm elections.
While some lawmakers and aides have suggested the option of enforcing standalone votes on individual parts of the package, it’s unlikely enough Republicans would support that legislation, requiring no more than 60 votes to pass a filibuster. to get. Republicans have remained unanimously against the plan since Mr. Biden first outlined it just under a year ago.
“The only thing I’m not going to do is complain about the paperwork we didn’t get and call that a failure,” said Iowa Representative Cindy Axne, one of the Democratic legislators facing a tough re-election in November. “I am encouraged by the fact that the public knows that this is still a huge priority.”
Some Democrats hope the lack of a voting rights review this week could help pave the legislative path for the domestic policy plan, with lawmakers eager to show more evidence of what a Democrat-controlled Washington could achieve.
“I’ve said that once we get through this kind of voting right, we need to switch back and figure out what to get 50 votes,” said Minnesota Democrat Senator Tina Smith. “We have to pass it on and not wait.”
Any attempt to reach a deal quickly could be further complicated by the need to negotiate with Republicans a comprehensive spending deal to keep the government open after Feb. 18.
“I’d love to hear how the White House wants us to prioritize this — I’m concerned this is our last minute to get a credit bill done,” said Connecticut Democrat Senator Chris Murphy.
Top lawmakers in both chambers have resumed talks on spending in recent weeks. Asked whether an attempt to revive the social policy plan could derail negotiations, Alabama Senator Richard C. Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate credit committee, said it likely would.
He added, “It takes the oxygen out of the air.”
Other senators involved in spending talks suggested they could get a boost from an effort by some lawmakers to provide more pandemic aid to stem the toll of the latest coronavirus strain and provide further support to restaurants, hospitals and other institutions.
“I could see where some sort of Covid aid package might be a bit of a sidecar on the bigger bill,” said Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt. He said he had briefly discussed the matter with Xavier Becerra, the Minister of Health and Human Services, in recent weeks, but the government has not formally requested emergency funding.
“I think the higher probability is simply the fact that there is no obvious work on the floor,” said Mr. blunt. “And this is something we have to do.”
Carl Hulse reporting contributed.